Alastair Cook, clearly nervous despite his wide smile, led the England team to Dubai this week as it began its preparations for the strenuous Test tour of India.

Cook has much to be nervous about. It is his first trip as regular captain, stepping forward to succeed Andrew Strauss and he must know that he is starting the toughest series of his life.

Forget the Ashes; forget the disciplined, ruthless South Africans. England players have many reasons for concern about tours of the subcontinent and India in particular.

It used to be illness, strange food, oppressive heat and a dozen foreign languages thousands of dusty miles from England.

Now that the world is, thanks to computers, telephones and the marvels of radio and television, a much smaller place there are fewer worries but the old consolation that Indian teams were poor, with frightened, undisciplined players poorly led is no longer true.

Finer team

Only two years ago India stepped into Australia’s place at the top of the world rankings and, although England wrenched the crown from its hands soon afterwards, India is a much finer side at home.

England has not won a series there since David Gower united a band of rugged professionals who ignored defeat in the first Test and won the series 2-1.

That was way back in 1985, four years BT — Before Tendulkar — and now India fears no one on its own idiosyncratic pitches.

In M.S. Dhoni it has one of the finest captains in the world, the immortal Tendulkar is still playing, even though Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman are retired, and during the Twenty20 world title matches it looked as if Harbhajan Singh had found the touch that had slipped from his cunning fingers.

Did he learn something extra in his brief spell with Essex recently? It may be true because that county has succeeded Yorkshire and Surrey as the great training ground.

If he did regain his form at Chelmsford he will also know that Cook served his apprenticeship there and that Andy Flower and Graham Gooch, the England’s backroom boys, will be on hand for the next two months in India.

Cook will look to both Flower and Gooch for wisdom. Flower will help with the spin bowling and there has never been a finer batsman against the slow stuff; Gooch had one of his finest moments in India.

I can see him now sweeping repeatedly in the World Cup semifinal in Mumbai which enabled England beat India.

The next day I flew to Calcutta for the final in an almost empty plane because India’s fans did not care any longer who won the World Cup, four years after it had snatched it from the West Indies at Lord’s, the most shocking defeat in the history of that competition.

Recipe for victory

Can Flower and Gooch — with Cook on field — find a recipe for victory? England has only won one Test in India since Gower’s triumph but there may be the key to victory in the peace talks that have allowed Kevin Pietersen back.

Unfortunately he is out of form. KP is more sensitive than his enemies suspect and all the upset over the text message row and his alleged insulting of Strauss have taken their toll.

So the management team must go to work again, convince Pietersen that he is still a great batsman and that those low pitches will allow him to play as freely as he did in the IPL and, maybe, restore his good name in a land where Indian fans hold him in the highest respect.

More In: Cricket | Sport