Football didn’t come home. Andy Murray missed Wimbledon. Jack and Dani won Love Island. So now, in August, the British public should have few distractions (apart from the latest Brexit disaster/scaremongering, depending on your allegiance) as they prepare to enjoy a 5 match test series between England and India.
For the visitors there is little doubt that this is their best chance of winning a test series in England since their 1-0 triumph under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy in 2007. They have a formidable batting line up, depth in their seam-bowling resources, and two of the best spinners in the world, as well as a third that befuddled England’s batsmen during the preceding ODI series. For the host nation meanwhile, they are still searching for an opening partner for Alastair Cook, a reliable spinner, a genuine fast bowler, and need to find two fast-medium bowlers to replace Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad in the near future.
The ICC test rankings tell a story (India are ranked 1st compared to England’s 5th), and with England currently experiencing one of its hottest and driest summers since 1976, conditions should not assist the home side’s bowlers to the same degree that they so often have in recent years. Let’s look at the key areas of each side in more detail:
England: Alastair Cook looked to have rediscovered his touch in the 2 tests against Pakistan, and got his eye in with 180 for England Lions against India A a fortnight ago. Keaton Jennings meanwhile will have fond memories of his debut test hundred against India just over 18 months ago, but having only recently been recalled for the 2nd test vs Pakistan, he will be under pressure to deliver, with Rory Burns and Nick Gubbins both knocking on the door.
India: The visitors are blessed to have 3 quality opening batsmen to pick from: the left-handed dasher Shikhar Dhawan, the solid but stylish Murali Vijay, and Lokesh Rahul, who combines Dhawan’s shot-making with Vijay’s technical correctness. Which two out of the three get the nod for the first test may be a toss-up, but expect Vijay to be one of them.
Verdict: England have 1 proven test opener, who may well be on the downslope of his career, whilst India have 3 to pick from. With conditions likely to be dry and hot, England’s bowlers may struggle to move the new ball and dislodge India’s opening pair. Winner: India.
England: Joe Root will have to turn his propensity for making stylish fifties and then getting out, into one for making big hundreds, and soon, if England are to avoid a series defeat. Dawid Malan deserves to be persevered with after a fine Ashes series in which he showcased an unflappable temperament, but he knows that he must make another hundred sooner or later this Summer to cement his place at number 4. Jonny Bairstow meanwhile has quickly become the key man in the England ‘engine room’, coming in at 5, whilst also keeping wicket. Ben Stokes should bat at 6 and along with Jos Buttler at 7, gives England an exciting trio of middle-order stroke makers, capable of taking the game away from the opposition. Whether they can match this undoubted attacking flair with the necessary patience to grind out runs when the going gets tough, remains to be seen.
India: In Cheteshwar Pujara the visitors quickly found a like for like replacement for ‘The Wall’. Having spent two successful short stints at Yorkshire over the last year, he has experience of English conditions, and can be expected to be the most difficult of all India’s batsmen for England to prize from the crease. Virat Kohli knows that he has a point to prove, having endured a horror series in England in 2014 (138 runs at 13.8). Expect him to enjoy a much more fruitful series this time. Ajinkya Rahane is likely to get the nod at number 5, and needs a successful series after a prolonged lean spell in test cricket. Dinesh Karthik should slot in at 6 with all-rounder Hardik Pandya taking on the Buttler role of being the aggressive stroke-maker at number 7.
Verdict: Root, Malan, Bairstow, Stokes, and Buttler are an exciting group of stroke-makers for England. However as was exposed in New Zealand, and the 1st test against Pakistan, it is also a brittle line-up when the ball moves about early on. Kohli holds the key for India and as long as his openers and Pujara can keep him away from the new ball, he should make hay while the sun shines. However Rahane is under pressure, Karthik is on the comeback trail and Pandya is still finding his way in test cricket. Draw.
Jonny Bairstow and Dinesh Karthik’s keeping has both improved markedly in recent years. Don’t expect many chances to go down behind the stumps. Verdict: Draw.
Slip-fielding and close catching
Slip fielding though is a different story , with India’s cordon in particular having a severe case of ‘butter fingers’ in recent series. England have not been much better, and have also struggled to find a reliable man to field under the lid at short-leg. India’s better fielding round the bat to their spinners should cancel out England’s marginally better slip cordon. Verdict: Draw.
England: The home side’s search for a match-winning spinner to replace Graeme Swann has been almost as fruitless as their quest for a reliable opening partner for Alastair Cook. Moeen Ali seemed to have filled the void until a chastening Ashes series last winter, and the unlucky Jack Leach and wet behind the ears Dom Bess have since been looked at and, for the moment, jettisoned. That leaves leg-spinner Adil Rashid as the man in possession; a bowler who has not played any first-class cricket all season. It is a far from ideal situation and whilst Rashid has performed creditably in recent ODIs, his propensity to send down one ‘four ball’ per over in his previous tests may well resurface in the pressure of a test match.
India: Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja form an incisive combination at home, but previous outings in England have been a different story. With England in the grip of a month long heatwave which shows little sign of abating, English pitches may for once play into India’s spinners’ hands. Kuldeep Yadav’s left-arm wristspin can also not be discounted, and he may actually get the nod ahead of Jadeja as India’s second spinner. Winner: India.
England: Jimmy Anderson, even at 36, continues to lead England’s attack manfully. Stuart Broad has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent tests, but England’s third seamer is young left-armer Sam Curran, who may lack sufficient pace to trouble test batsmen, unless he can conjure up consistent swing to compensate. Ben Stokes will be unlikely to bowl too many overs having suffered injury problems in recent times. Essex’s Jamie Porter is also likely to get a chance to show his wares during the series.
India: Mohammad Shami’s return from injury could prove crucial for India, especially if he is able to find the reverse swing that has made him a dangerous proposition on dry Indian pitches. Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya give India the best fast-bowling depth they have had in living memory.
Verdict: If England can keep Jimmy Anderson fit for all 5 tests, they have a chance. However if he or a rejuvenated Stuart Broad succumb to injury, then their seam attack will begin to look threadbare. India can confidently rotate amongst 5 seam bowlers for 3 likely spots (with Pandya batting at 7), and with that crucial factor of the weather likely to keep the pitches and outfields dry to assist reverse swing, they may actually hold the advantage over the hosts. Winner (just): India
India have a stronger opening pair (for which they have 3 proven performers to choose from), better spinners and more depth in pace-bowling, and so they should come out on top over the course of 5 tests. It will take a monumental effort from England’s key men, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jimmy Anderson, to stave off a series defeat. With the weather likely to stay hot and dry, and with few tests now lasting 5 days, expect at least 4 positive results. This writer predicts India to win the series, 3 matches to 1.