• England have made four alterations to the side that romped to a 227-run victory at the same venue last week
  • Stuart Broad, Ben Foakes and Moeen Ali all guaranteed to replace James Anderson, Jos Buttler and Dom Bess who didn’t make the 12-man squad
  • England captain Joe Root’s only other decision is whether to replace the injured Jofra Archer with the raw pace of Olly Stone or the experienced, controlled Chris Woakes
CHENNAI, INDIA – England are looking to build on a memorable 1st Test victory, but will do so without key members of their squad. India haven’t lost successive Test matches at home since 2012, when England themselves were the visitors

 




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This Test series just got interesting. Every cricket fan was already expecting to enjoy a series packed with star quality, but what many weren’t anticipating was an England victory. It was not just the fact the tourists have gone 1-0 up in the four match series, but the manner in which they went about it, stifling India from the moment the coin came down in favour of Joe Root, which has made people sit up and take notice.

Normally however, the old sporting adage is to never change a winning team, especially one that can execute a game plan to the letter. Head coach Chris Silverwood hasn’t been afforded that luxury in two cases, but he and the selectors have made two other massive calls which, if they backfire, has the potential to undo a lot of the excellent work already shown in Chennai. Conversely, if they are proven to be smart judgement calls, England could leave the east coast of India with an unattainable lead.

Four changes to a team of 11 is quite an overhaul, and is bound to change some dynamics. Although England’s top six in the batting order is untouched – which should settle some England fans used to turning on the TV with England 45-4 – a new wicketkeeper, off-spinner and pace attack may cause Root some headaches if India’s resistance proves significantly more obstinate than in the opener. If Root could guarantee one thing before Saturday’s play, it would almost certainly be whether the coin comes down heads or tails.

 

The enforced changes

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Let’s start with the decisions England have been forced into since last week’s victory. Before a ball was bowled in Chennai, England knew Jos Buttler would be on a plane home after the 1st Test as he takes his scheduled break from the world of bio-secure bubbles. This opens the door for Surrey wicketkeeper Ben Foakes, who has been the most patient of the entire England touring party this winter.

The 27-year-old produced a memorable 100 on debut in Sri Lanka in late 2018, but was then dropped after just five Tests in the side following a run of low scores in the Caribbean. Foakes will be looking to his form in Asia as a positive memory to draw upon when facing the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin, who, with nine wickets in the opening game, remains the obvious threat.

Wicketkeeping is Foakes’ strength, unlike the man he is replacing, which stands the Surrey man in good stead with the pitches in India being slow and low, but can surprise both batsman and keeper with the odd ball that turns and bounces. Expect Foakes to take most, if not every, chance he is presented with behind the stumps this week.

The other enforced change sees Jofra Archer missing out due to an elbow injury. England are hoping, with the troublesome area already receiving an injection, Archer will be back when the final two Tests head to Ahmedabad, starting February 24. This leaves an opening for one of two men in England’s squad – the raw 90mph+ pace of Olly Stone, whose only Test appearance to date was vs Ireland in 2019, or the control and experience of fellow Warwickshire player Chris Woakes, who offers far more with the bat and has 37 more Test caps to his name.

The temptation will surely be to replace X-factor with X-factor and take a risk on the out-and-out pace of Stone, especially with Archer’s ferociousness missing. However, Root has already admitted all-rounder Ben Stokes will play a much larger role with the ball than the 10 overs he was required for in the 1st Test.

“He can provide that aggression and it looks like he’s getting fitter and stronger the more he gets into the tour,” Root told ESPNCricinfo. “We had to be quite smart about him in the last game – he looked a bit uncomfortable at times – but the more and more he bowled in each spell he looked more comfortable.

“I think he will go from strength to strength as you normally see from Ben – the more he gets into a series the more you get from him. You can bet that in those big moments, he will be the one asking for the ball, trying to change things and make a real impact. It is very exciting that there is more from him to come.”

If Root’s assertions prove to be true, then the wiser option would be to replace Archer with Woakes, especially with Buttler also missing out. Since the turn of 2020, Buttler has performed consistently with the bat, notching 1221 runs in 19 innings. This puts him second only to captain Root in terms of Test runs for his country in that time. With Foakes unproven at Test level since that aforementioned lean spell vs the West Indies two years ago, England may choose to slot Woakes into their lower middle order, seriously strengthening the batting even from a side that racked up 578 in one innings last week.

 

The risk-taking rotation

However, England haven’t stopped at just two changes. Despite both playing a major role in taking 20 wickets on their way to a convincing victory, off-spinner Dom Bess and England’s highest ever wicket taker James Anderson must both sit out for the 2nd Test.

England must have been somewhat tempted to pick Stuart Broad and Anderson in tandem when the news of Archer’s injury broke – who wouldn’t, when the pair have combined for over 1000 Test wickets between them when taking the field together. However, with their careers more on the Indian summer side, England have been careful to manage their workloads, especially away from home where both temperatures and conditions aren’t especially conducive for fast bowling.

Anderson bowled a spell remarkably akin to Andrew Flintoff’s incredible over in the 2005 Ashes last week, removing opener Shubman Gill and vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane both clean bowled with some of the best examples of reverse swing any young cricketer could feast their eyes on (if it wasn’t for the Indian Cricket Board, the BCCI, getting protective over video rights).

Despite his match-winning performance on that final day, Anderson has been rested from what would’ve been his third Test in four weeks as England continue with their policy to rotate their two most successful ever bowlers when away from home.

“It gives him [Anderson] the best opportunity to be fit and available for those last two games,” Root said.”Everyone’s heart was in favour of him being available for this game but also you have to look at the bigger picture and ideally if he is available for two of the last three, that is a huge asset for us [with] the way he is bowling and his reputation, as well as his numbers and the way he has performed in recent games.”

The fourth and final change comes in the off-spin department, where the young and inconsistent Bess has been told to go away and work at his skills by captain Root, despite taking the wickets of Virat KohliCheteshwar PujaraRishabh Pant and Rahane during the 1st Test.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Root told The Cricketer. “Dom has contributed fantastically well in these three games and has made a real impact. With him missing out the message for him moving forward is to keep working at that consistency in his game and delivering that skill time and time again and building pressure over long periods of time.

“As well as he has done and his contributions have been fantastic, that is one area that he can improve on. It has been made very clear what he needs to go away and work on and he has taken that on board. It gives him an opportunity to take a step out of Test cricket, the harshest environment, especially in these conditions, especially against a team who play them so well and take stock and work at his game.”

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Bess’ omission allows Moeen Ali to re-enter the Test fray after taking a period of enforced leave due to mental health reasons back in 2019. Despite being seen initially as a batting all-rounder, Moeen’s off-spin shone in his opening year of Test cricket, taking 22 wickets at an average of 28.o9. He kept that year-on-year bowling average under 29 in his most recent two years of Test matches, proving his bowling credentials never really went away.

However, it was his form with the bat which caused this prolonged break for one of England’s brightest all-round talents. Despite taking exactly 50 wickets across 2018-19, Moeen scored just 358 runs in that same period, at an average of 15.6. His best year with the bat was in 2016, where he averaged a shade under 47, but that aligned with his worst year with the ball in Test cricket, averaging 53 with his off-spin.

Unlike the great English all-rounders, whose skills seem to benefit from one another, Moeen has never quite been able to consistently produce with both bat and ball in tandem, despite producing results with each at varying times. His selection is perhaps the most intriguing of all, as he has been out of the spotlight of Test cricket for a fair while now.

To be thrust into a series vs India against some of the best players of spin in their own backyard perhaps isn’t the quiet return to Test cricket Moeen would’ve perhaps wanted for himself, especially given his last tour to India, where he claimed just 10 wickets in 188.1 overs at an average of 64.9. Although Bess hasn’t offered the control his captain would like, he has returned 17 wickets at 22.71 so far this year.

This next game in Chennai could well turn on how England do with ball in hand without the pace of Archer or skill of Anderson coupled with an inevitable Indian reaction to their under-par display last week. Although England could come into this Test with a strengthened batting line-up, they must prove their credentials in the field, especially if they lose the toss tomorrow morning.

The second of the four match Test series between India and England resumes in Chennai from 13-17 February.

 

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