By Michael Stafford-Jones
- England’s batsmen must improve after struggles in Bangladesh
- Bowling also an issue as England ponder whether to play two or three spinners
- India are the No1 Test team in the world and will be a very difficult opponent
RAJKOT, INDIA – England have plenty of tough selection decisions to make ahead of the First Test of a highly challenging series in India.
Can England find the right balance in their batting line-up?
England’s batsmen let them down badly in Bangladesh. Only Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Johnny Bairstow averaged over 30 in the Test series and Stokes made the sole score over 70.
To make matters worse, Gary Ballance averaged just six in his four innings. However, England will almost certainly drop the Yorkshire player after such poor performances so the focus has rightfully shifted to who will replace him.
One option is to make a straight swap and give Jos Buttler a chance at number four and another is to promote Bairstow to four and bring in Buttler at seven. If the Lancashire player is selected, England will have to decide whether who to give the keeper’s gloves. At the moment, it seems likely Bairstow will retain them.
England may opt to move Ben Duckett down to Ballance’s position instead. The youngster’s fifty in the second innings of the Second Test suggested he might be capable of playing Test cricket for years to come and his style of play is potentially more suited to middle-order batting than opening. If the tourists go down this route, Haseeb Hameed will make his debut as an opener.
Hameed is an opener in the Alastair Cook mould and spent more minutes at the crease than any other batsman in the 2016 County Championship season. If either he or Buttler are selected, it will aid the balance of England’s leftie-dominated line-up as they are both right-handers. Left-handers are considered more vulnerable to the dangers posed by India’s premier spinner Ravichandran Ashwin so it could be make an important difference.
How many spinners should England select?
England’s chances of taking 20 wickets in the First Test in Rajkot depend on their choice of bowlers. As the leader of the attack in James Anderson’s absence, Stuart Broad will definitely play and Chris Woakes is almost certain to line up alongside him. All-rounders Stokes and Moeen Ali’s places are also guaranteed.
Beyond that, however, England can pick whoever they want and it is difficult to work out which are their best options. They consider Adil Rashid to be their best wicket-taking spinner, but he is also the least economical and the least consistent. Zafar Ansari bowled well in the second innings of the Second Test and was unlucky not to take more than two wickets. And Gareth Batty was arguably the tourist’s best spinner in the First Test.
England could pick all four spinners, but they are not good enough to warrant such a bold selection and there is no suggestion the tourists intend to do this. If they want to choose the three most economical spinners, they should select Ansari and Batty alongside Ali.
While speaking to the Evening Standard before his debut against Bangladesh, Cook indicated a preference for Ansari, and he performed quite well in the match so it seems likely he will line up for the India series.
However, England do not seem at all sure who they will select as their sixth bowling option and Coach Trevor Bayliss suggested no firm decisions will be made until shortly before the match. He told The Guardian: “We’ve had a chat and a think about what tactics or combinations we might have. But until we get to Rajkot we won’t be sure of what the wicket’s like.”
England do not have to pick a third spinner; they could opt for a fourth seamer instead. However, Steven Finn was unimpressive in the Second Test against Bangladesh and Jake Ball is inexperienced so neither seems a sensible choice. When Anderson returns, probably for either the Second or Third Test, four seamers will be a more attractive option for the tourists.
Will No1 Test side India be unbeatable at home?
India may not be unbeatable but they will certainly be extremely difficult to overcome, particularly on their own patch. Captain Virat Kohli is one of the best batsmen in the world and is capable of taking any game away from any opposition with a wonderful innings. He is joined in the batting line-up by Ajinkya Rahane, who is currently sixth in the ICC Test Rankings, averages over 50 and has scored eight centuries in the 29 Test he has played so far.
The hosts can also call on Cheteshwar Pujara, who averages 49.22 in Test cricket and has also scored eight centuries in his career. However, they will be without several injured players who could make their batting line-up even stronger. Rohit Sharma will miss the whole series with a thigh injury, while openers Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul are currently absent with thumb and hamstring problems respectively.
India have a strong bowling attack too, particularly in the spin department. Ashwin is the number one Test bowler in the world according to the ICC rankings, while fellow spinner Ravindra Jadeja is ranked seventh. They are backed up by pacemen Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami and Ishant Sharma, as well as third spin option Amit Mishra.
England will be most worried about Ashwin and Jadeja after their struggles against spin in Bangladesh and the way they play these two dangermen could decide the entire series.
However, the tourist’s Vice-Captain Joe Root insists England are not scarred by their struggles against spin in Bangladesh. He told The Guardian: “I wouldn’t say scarred. We’re respectful of some decent bowling in some spin-friendly conditions.”
“We are not naive enough to think we will not come up against similar conditions over here, but I think it’s very important that we take the confidence from the good stuff we did out there and brush up on all the other stuff that didn’t quite go to plan.”
“India pose a big threat, we’ve just got to make sure we prepare very well and try and prove a lot of people wrong that we can perform extremely well on this tour.”
The First Test between England and India begins in Rajkot at 4am UK time on Wednesday 9th November.
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