It has been three years since India were in England for a bilateral series. Back then, India under Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri were trying to inculcate a result-oriented style of play in the team. The results were not immediate with losses, first in South Africa and then in England.
A lot has happened since. India have beaten Australia in their backyard twice and are now trying to establish themselves as one of the best sides of a generation. To achieve that, the journey will proceed through crossing the final frontier in South Africa later this year and culminate with winning the final of a consecutive final in the World Test Championship.
But, the biggest hurdle from now to then is a five-match Test series in England, a place that has resulted in heartbreaks for three consecutive tours now.
There have been several personnel changes from both sides from three years ago. England’s most celebrated opener in recent times, Alastair Cook retired after that series. In what could be a decisive blow, Ben Stokes has pulled out of the series owing to mental health issues.
While India have some lingering batting issues, they are lucky to have their pace troika from 2018 intact. England's batting line-up may seem fragile but they bat deep and have the potential to hurt India at any stage. To nullify the threat, here is how India's bowling plan for each of their batsman might look like.
Note: All numbers are from Tests in England since 2019
Sibley came into the mix after England failed to retain the Ashes at home in 2019. He started on a high, scoring tons first in his fourth Test against South Africa at Cape Town and then in his second Test at home against West Indies at Old Trafford in July last year. However, his returns have been diminishing since and his defensive style of play has resulted in criticism on his ability to perform against stronger teams.
In home Tests, five out of Sibley's nine dismissals against right-arm pace – the only pace variety in India's armoury – have been bowled or LBW.
While he has built his game on defensive, Sibley waits for the bowlers to err in length as his average of 90 and a relatively breezy strike rate of 52.3 on full balls suggests. However, seven out the nine dismissals have been to balls at a good length, where he has averaged a mere 16.6. Almost all Indian bowlers are metronomic when it comes to landing the ball at a good length. As things stand, Sibley should not be a big threat.
Being the only left-hander in England’s top six, Burns will have Ravichandran Ashwin asking Kohli for an early introduction into the attack. Ashwin fancies himself against every left-hander in the world, but knowing Burns’ recent numbers he would be keener to give his side an early break against him. In Tests at home since 2019, no other England batsman has had more than three dismissals against off-spin. Burns has had six.
Against the pacers, Burns does not fall into the recent pattern of left-handers struggling from around the wicket angle. Rather, he has averaged 26.88 from over the wicket as compared to 36.4 from around. All dismissals from over the wicket have been through catches. So the ball angling away from him might be the way early on. Something Jasprit Bumrah is potent at.
Crawley comes as a visual delight at three after two unorthodox openers. He announced himself with a crackling 267 in the last Test of the summer against Pakistan last year. However, since then he has averaged 10.25 in 12 Test innings. Only 21 runs have come from his bat in his last four Test innings at home.
Looking to be aggressive, Crawley has succumbed to full balls against right-arm pace as he has averaged 18.4 on the front foot in home Tests. Thus is he has averaged only 12 on full deliveries. On the other hand, hanging on the backfoot has never resulted in a dismissal.
Root’s downward spiral at home has hurt England in recent times. In addition to Root, five other English batsmen have scored 400+ runs at home since 2019. All of them averaged better than his 30.86 in this period.
He has struggled when the ball from the right-arm pacers has pitched in the 5-6 meter distance from the stumps and has thus averaged 19.9 on the front foot against pace. As a batsman who loves hanging back, this low average compares to 54 while he has played the ball on the back foot.
Pope’s case has been opposite to that of Crawley and Root. Immaculate with his Ian Bell-like drives, he has averaged a high 71.5 on the front foot against right-arm pacers. However, this average has dipped to 21 on the back foot.
Moreover, in the ongoing season, Pope has tried a new stance to assist his leg-side play. Taking a guard outside the off stump results in his leg stump being visible to the bowler and makes him an LBW candidate.
He has also averaged 15.5 against spin in England since 2019. This will have both Ravindra Jadeja and Ashwin vying for his wicket.
At home since 2019, Buttler has averaged the second-most among England’s expected top-six versus India. However, Crawley’s innings against Pakistan skews his numbers big time. Hence, one can say that Buttler has been the most consistent among them. But, an average of 36.8 from their most consistent batter is not inspiring.
14 out of the last 17 dismissals for Buttler in home Tests have been against right-arm pacers. Six of these have been bowled. As per the ball tracking data available, Buttler has averaged only 15.9 on the balls coming into him. This makes him vulnerable against all Indian pacers as it is their natural line of attack. In fact, all three – Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami – dismissed him twice each in the 2018 series.
Coming to the thorn in India’s flesh from the 2018 series, Curran has not been a regular member of England’s Test side. However, the absence of Stokes might result in him playing most if not all of the five Tests.
In 13 innings in home Tests since his debut, Curran has averaged 33 which is impressive given his batting position. This average is above 31 against both right-arm pace and off-spin. Hence there is no pattern that India can target at the outset.
If at all, he has averaged 44.7 when the right-arm pacers have bowled around the wicket to him whereas this average has reduced to 24.5 from over the wicket. While England might have a fragile batting line-up, India’s ability to deal with Curran might be all that will matter.