England enjoyed a semblance of cheer on Friday after their disastrous first week in India. Injured captain Michael Vaughan was able to test his knee in the nets and the pace attack demonstrated some lively form in the final warm-up game before next week’s first Test.
However, England’s management responded to the plague of injuries and illness by placing opening batsman Alastair Cook and fast bowler James Anderson on standby for the Test series. The pair were withdrawn from the England A match against West Indies in Antigua and are returning to Britain in case they are needed to bolster the squad in India.
Apart from the captain’s troublesome right knee and the stomach bug that has afflicted a number of players, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood have back problems while Liam Plunkett has a bruised left heel.
Plunkett’s fellow pacemen Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard nevertheless raised spirits in stifling heat on Friday to keep the Indian Board XI in check at Baroda. The hosts eventually declared on 342 for 8, a lead of 104 runs after losing five batsmen for only 68 runs as the bowlers dominated in the afternoon. England had managed to wipe just 10 off the deficit by the close for the loss of Andrew Strauss.
Another low score for Strauss was tinged with irony, for the recurrence of Vaughan’s knee trouble has not only made the captain doubtful for the Test that begins in Nagpur on Wednesday, but also raised the possibility that his international career may end sooner than expected. And while Marcus Trescothick will continue to skipper the side in Vaughan’s absence in India, many observers believe his permanent successor will ultimately be Strauss.
The Middlesex opener, who will be 29 on the second day of next week’s Test, has already benefited once from Vaughan’s susceptibility to injury. The captain’s ab-sence led to the Middlesex opener’s Test debut two Mays ago, a serendipitous prelude to one of the most successful starts to any in-ternational sporting career. This included seven centuries and a 50-plus average in his first 19 Tests.
But any thoughts of captaincy will be subsumed by a determination to regain such form, which deserted him entirely on England’s aut-umn tour of Pakistan.
Just before England flew to India, he made clear his determination to atone for that trip, where he scraped 44 runs in four innings before flying home for the birth of his son Sam. It was his first sticky patch in more ways than one.
“You can’t always succeed,” he said. “You accept the highs and lows, just so long as you keep your mind free of clutter. I had a bit of bad luck [in Pakistan], a couple of injudicious shots.” Until then, “everything [had] gone terribly well”, he added. “But I don’t want to make Sam the excuse.”
He received some criticism for leaving the team for the birth, and when asked about this it was evidently a strain to keep the response discreet and dispassionate.
“You should respect people’s right to their opinion, but . . . the days of people playing in the wrong mental state are over – or should be.”
He also pointed to other factors that affected the team as a whole in Pakistan. The absence of the then injured Simon Jones from the pace attack was one – “Pakistan sometimes looked too comfortable against our bowlers” – and the constraints of the security measures required in the country were another.
“If you’re wishing a tour to end, you’re on a hiding to nothing. Pakistan was hard; being cooped up in hotels contributed to that. It won’t be like that in India and I’m keen to explore, to make the most it. The happier a team is, the likelier it is to perform well.”
Despite this determination for a more successful tour in India, Strauss was not underestimating the opposition. “India’s top six must be the best in the game,” he said with a measure of awe. “They all average around 50, and there’s a couple of legends in [Rahul] Dravid and [Sachin] Tendulkar.”