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Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

England's Indian challenge

By Jamie Lillywhite

Kevin Pietersen
Pietersen has led the way superbly so far, but can he continue overseas?

For many years now England one-day captains have found themselves gradually worn down by the team's nagging inconsistency.

The current incumbent Kevin Pietersen enjoyed a spectacular start to his reign and some thought he was blessed with the Midas touch for the way he transformed a downtrodden team into an all-conquering side.

South Africa were defeated in the summer's final Test and the one-day series was comprehensively won 4-0.

Pietersen's new-look side were then expected to go on to glory, both cricketing and financial, in the Caribbean but that turned to a nightmare when they were all out for 99 and lost by 10 wickets in the $20m Stanford Super Series game.

Now Pietersen faces his first overseas tour, the daunting challenge of a seven-match one-day series against an India team full of confidence after a crushing Test series win over Australia.

One man who knows all about the rigours of an Indian tour is Somerset all-rounder Ian Blackwell, who was part of the team beaten 5-1 in 2006.

"You're certainly playing outside your comfort zone in terms of weather conditions and lifestyle, plus they're a quality outfit so it makes it hard work," he told BBC Sport.

England started the current trip with an easy win but a 124-run defeat by the Mumbai President's XI on Tuesday came as a shock to the system.

Former England wicketkeeper Paul Nixon does not believe the Stanford match will have a lasting significance when the series gets under way on Friday.

Kevin Pietersen
Pietersen in India in 2006, before the advent of the 'switch hit'
Nixon knows a thing or two about fighting back, having played a key role in helping England win a one-day series in Australia after losing the Ashes 5-0.

Speaking ahead of the tour of India he told BBC Sport: "It has given them a kick up the backside and it was very similar to the one-day tour that we won down under.

"That gave the Australians a kick up the backside for the World Cup that they went on to win.

"Kevin Pietersen, I know, will use that as a positive and great motivation for what is going to be a very tough series."

For many years questions have been asked about why England have failed to win a World Cup or Champions Trophy.

Over the past decade promising starts all too regularly turned into a familiar pattern of unfulfilled potential.

When England last played India, in the home campaign of 2007, Paul Collingwood had replaced Michael Vaughan after another World Cup failure, and shared an unbroken century stand with Pietersen to clinch that series in the final match.

But less than 12 months later, during which the team had won memorably in Sri Lanka but lost home and away to New Zealand, he had been replaced by Pietersen.

The India series, generally regarded as one of the toughest in international cricket, will give an indication of how good Pietersen's team really is.

And Nixon and Blackwell both believe he has the skills to build on his impressive start as captain.

"KP is an honest guy, very, very focused and positive in everything he does, meticulous in his preparations and that will rub off on to the the younger lads coming in which is only going to a be a good thing," Nixon explained.

"He is a very destructive player and he likes to take the attack to anybody and he also thinks he's probably better than anyone he plays against which is quite a good trait to have," Blackwell added.

Nixon also believes England will have learnt from Australia's mistakes in their 2-0 Test series defeat.

"It's been interesting watching the Aussies out there and to me they've gone about it slightly the wrong way," he said.

"The way (Mahendra) Dhoni plays is very positive, very innovative and I think that's what you have to be against India, who have got a complete attack."

Steve Harmison
Harmison returned to ODIs in 2008 with five scalps in four games with SA
Pietersen's impressive man-management skills have extended to the batting order, with Owais Shah given confidence to bat in his favoured number three behind an opening pair of Ian Bell and recalled wicketkeeper Matt Prior.

"They're different players. One problem England had was pretty samey players at the top of the order but Matty Prior is a destructive opener and Ian Bell is more of a stroke player," Blackwell says.

"It looks a pretty good balance so it's good they're persisting with those two.

"I think it's great Owais Shah has come to the fore now.

"Whether he has not been backed by the set-up or certain captains I don't know but I think he's a quality player who deserves a good run in the team at his specialist position."

But it was the success in persuading Harmison to come out of one-day retirement that was widely acclaimed and Blackwell said: "It's a very positive thing for England that they have a bowler who is very different. That extra height and pace gives the captain an advantage at certain points in the game."

Ironically it was in India that Harmison announced his one-day retirement, having taken 1-45 in 4.5 overs against Australia in the Champions Trophy in Jaipur.

"He obviously lost a bit of confidence in the one-day arena when he couldn't hold the new white ball but he's found it again and been bowling well of late," said Blackwell.

The heat, humidity, travel and sheer intensity of the cricket in India was too much for world champions Australia.

As if to emphasise the task ahead for England, and underline the problems of inconsistency, Pietersen's team managed to eclipse their Stanford debacle by being shot out for 98 in the final warm-up before the opening one-day international.

With the Ashes to follow next summer, the next few months will be a true test of the England captain's resolve.

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