MUMBAI (Reuters) - As India prepare to take on England in what promises to be a hard-fought series, the potency of a bowling attack in which Ishant Sharma is the only paceman to have played a test on English soil could prove to be the decisive factor.
India were humiliated 4-0 the last time they toured England in 2011 but the hosts appear vulnerable ahead of this five-match series after a 5-0 Ashes whitewash in Australia at the start of the year and a more recent home series defeat against Sri Lanka.
Zaheer Khan's 18 wickets were the key to India's last test series triumph in England with a win at Trent Bridge earning them a 1-0 victory in a three-match series seven years ago.
However, with the 35-year-old wily left-arm paceman missing from the touring party, doubts have emerged over India's ability to bowl England out twice in a test match.
Rahul Dravid, who led India to the 2007 series victory, believes the team have the batting strength to match their opponents, leaving it down to the bowlers of either side to make the difference.
"I think the key is going to be the ability to take 20 wickets," Dravid, who is mentoring the Indian team on the tour, told reporters at Lord's this week.
"When we won the series here in 2007, Zaheer was exceptional but he got good support from the other guys as well.
The spinners, who can run through the opposition on surfaces conducive to slow bowling, will receive little assistance from English pitches with the onus resting on the seam attack to get a bulk of the wickets needed for a win.
Out of the six frontline seam bowlers, the lanky 25-year-old Ishant is the only one to have toured England before.
Ishant caught the imagination of Indian supporters with his fiery spells against Australia captain Ricky Ponting at Perth in 2008, during which he beat the right-handed batsman on numerous occasions and dismissed him in both innings.
Despite going on to play 55 test matches, his career has stagnated since his exploits at the WACA, disappointing those who marked him out as the country's next bowling leader after Zaheer.
He has taken 164 test wickets and been impressive in patches but has also been derided for his failure to lead the bowling attack in the absence of the injury-prone Zaheer.
While Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, the most likely pace duo to start alongside Ishant, are able to swing the ball both ways - a crucial skill in English conditions - they have only played six test matches apiece.
Ishant's role will not just be restricted to taking wickets this time but also guide the young attack with his experience.
"It is Ishant who has played the most number of matches and he has been around for a while," Zaheer told ESPNcricinfo in an interview. "It is time he steps into that role.
"For Bhuvi (Kumar) and Shami, it is their first (England) tour so they will look to Ishant and (bowling coach) Joe Dawes for input to perform in those conditions."
(Editing by John O'Brien)
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