- Senior players Joe Root, James Anderson and Stuart Broad come into the four-match Test tour in sparkling form, but England will be looking for their younger players to step up
- India haven’t lost a Test series at home since England beat them in 2012-13, underlining the challenge facing Root’s charges
- Despite England welcoming back Rory Burns, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, it is the away side’s spin department where doubt is being cast
CHENNAI, INDIA – With India coming off a remarkable series win in Australia, predominately without their superstar batsman and skipper Virat Kohli, England fans must be worried about their young guns’ ability to compete in Asian conditions.
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England haven’t been used to the ‘underdog’ tag in recent years. Perhaps for an older cricket fan experiencing 16 years of hurt between the late 1980s and that famous 2005 Ashes success against Australia, being second best is part and parcel of the England cricket experience. However, nothing could be further from the truth for England’s captain Joe Root.
In England’s 46 Tests under the stewardship of Root, they have won 25 of them. You have to go back to Mike Brearley, arguably England’s greatest ever leader, to find a winning percentage higher than Root’s 54.34%. The 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka last month bestowed Root with yet more history as England skipper – he has the joint most wins in Asia as captain (5), and meant England went on a run of five successive Test match victories away from home for the first time in 97 years.
However, Root and head coach Chris Silverwood are now warming up for a four-match Test series against Virat Kohli’s India, who are coming off the back of a remarkable victory Down Under, already being described as among the best Test series of all time.
Thanks largely to injuries, head coach Ravi Shastri was only able to retain two names in his starting XI for the entire four-match series: the limpet-like Cheteshwar Pujara and stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane. In the first Test in Adelaide, India were skittled for 36 – their lowest Test score ever. Despite this, against all odds, without the talismanic Kohli, they fought back to seal a 2-1 victory that Indian fans will hold in as high regard as England fans celebrate the aforementioned ’05 Ashes success (well, almost).
If that doesn’t build momentum, I’m not sure what does. Not only will India’s collective morale be through the roof, but they’ll be welcoming back Kohli on home soil, who averages 68 in India, along with frontline spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who missed the famous Brisbane success, plus all-rounder Hardik Pandya who supplies both balance and x-factor and experienced seamer Ishant Sharma, who averages a tick over 21 against England in Chennai, which hosts the first two matches of the series.
It’s a daunting task for Root and Silverwood who, as a result of the ECB’s eminently sensible policy giving players time off from the Covid-secure bubble essential to international cricket nowadays, will have no consistency in selection, almost invariably leading to a similar inconsistency in performance levels. However, their opponents have shown the way forward in that regard…
Top order tussles
England’s opening pair in Sri Lanka didn’t have much to write home about last month, with both Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley failing to reach double figures until the fourth and final innings of the series. Thankfully, this was merely a short-term solution as Rory Burns returns to the fold following the birth of his daughter, Cora.
Out of this top three, Essex batsman Crawley perhaps has the most to prove in regards to the Test match temperament all international batsmen must possess, especially in order to score runs in unfamiliar conditions. Burns and Sibley both share plenty of grit and determination, but this trip to India may shape how the rest of their Test careers pan out: you only have to think back to England’s two most recent captains’ first trips to India and how Alastair Cook’s 104 in Nagpur and Root’s masterful 73, both on debut, led to a combined total of 20,721 Test runs for England (and counting!)
England’s top three, despite their relative inexperience, need to shoulder the responsibility of providing runs for their side rather than listening to a lot of the noise surrounding this series in comparing them to India’s top order, which could lead to a dangerous inferiority complex.
On paper, India’s top three has the perfect balance. The precocious talent of Shubman Gill, who just three years ago won player of the tournament in India’s U19 Cricket World Cup success and has stepped up to senior level with ease already averaging over 50, the flair and power of Rohit Sharma, who can knock any bowler off their gameplan with crunching pulls and dominant drives, and the immovable object of Pujara who embodied the never-say-die attitude of the Indians in Australia by taking 11 blows during his obdurate 314-minute stay in the hostile environment of the Gabba.
Gill may suffer from inconsistency at such a green stage in his Test career, but unlike Burns and Sibley he can score all around the ground, making Root’s job a lot harder than Virat’s in where to plug the gaps when taking to the field. Rohit and Pujara have over 100 Tests worth of experience between them, whereas outside of Root and the returning Ben Stokes, England’s next most experienced batsman is Burns, with just 21 Test caps to his name.
Stokes missed the Sri Lanka series due to bubble concerns but now back in the thick of it as England gear up for nine Tests vs India in the next eight months, his all-round abilities offers a crucial balance – England’s tail felt unusually long during their Sri Lanka tour.
Spin to win?
But it is the spin department where the gulf in class is most obvious. The wily Ashwin takes wickets wherever he goes, and averages less than 23 in India, with a strike rate of just below 50. India will also be welcoming back Ravindra Jadeja after the first two Tests, whose flat, left-arm angle strikes fear into both England fans and players alike – his best Test figures of 7/48 came in England’s last trip to Chennai (an innings and 75 runs drubbing). England haven’t won at Chepauk since 1985.
The slow, low pitches in India virtually nullify the sideways movement and bounce England pacers are able to call upon on home shores, so naturally eyes turn to England’s spinners to provide the spark that Stuart Broad and James Anderson have consistently produced in the last decade or more. All hopes will be on Somerset products Jack Leach and Dom Bess, now at Yorkshire, to prise out key breakthroughs. Although big first innings runs are often the key factor in any subcontinental success, you must take 20 wickets to win any Test match, wherever you play.
Leach’s Test match numbers are good, and perhaps is only underrated thanks to recent illness and his orthodox, throwback style of left-arm spin bowling. He averages 30.50 in his short 12-match Test career so far, with a respectable economy of 2.94. In comparison, England’s best spinner in recent history, Graeme Swann, averaged 29.96 in his career with an economy of 2.98. If Leach can carry on producing over a number of years, especially when the onus is on him, England will have a true player on their hands.
However, Bess’ performances haven’t been as well renowned so far. His consistency in line and length just isn’t at international standard, and he has faced just four opponents so far: Sri Lanka last month, where he took one of the ‘filthiest five-fors in Test history,’ South Africa away, his best performance in an England shirt so far, and West Indies and Pakistan at home. Although he took 12 wickets at 21.25 in Sri Lanka, Bess would be the first to admit his bowling perhaps didn’t reflect those figures: his average of 78.67 against Pakistan last summer shows what can happen to his bowling when proficient, patient players of spin come up against Bess.
If England are to have any joy this winter against India (and they must do in order to place a marker down for the return leg this summer), they need more than Root – who is admittedly in sparkling form – and Stokes to score runs, and more than Broad, Anderson and the returning Jofra Archer to take wickets. Silverwood will be boosted by the inclusion of Ollie Pope after a troublesome shoulder, but that is caveated by the loss of senior player Jos Buttler after the first Test as he takes his scheduled break from the bio-secure bubble.
England’s young guns have had their introduction to Test cricket. Now it’s time to see who truly belongs to the future of this side.
The first Test between India and England begins Friday February 5 at 4am UK time, live on Channel 4.
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