Fifty years to the day the elephant came to the Oval, it barged on again. But the dynamics were totally different.
Back in 1971, India’s new-ball bowlers were Syed Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar. New-ball bowlers and not pacers mind you. Their essential job was to take the shine of the new ball for the spinners to then take over. On the hot dry fifth day at The Oval earlier this week, the responsibilities flipped. India’s spinner – Ravindra Jadeja - targeted the rough outside the left-handers off stump, not just for himself but to also ensure roughing the ball up enough for the pacers to perform the trickery of reverse swing. Moments after lunch, the ball danced to Jasprit Bumrah’s tunes and the end was near for England.
The win at the Oval was only the second time India managed to win more than one Test in a series in England. The eve of the Test at Old Trafford has taken an unforeseen turn with COVID cases in the Indian camp. With all Indian players returning with negative test results, the Test will go ahead as planned and India have a chance to achieve a lot of firsts. A win would be their first at the venue in the format. In nine previous attempts, they have not even come close to winning here. It would also be the first time they win more than two Tests in England in a series. It would also give India series wins in Australia and England in the same year.
The series thus far has changed hands within a Test and between them so many times that the word “momentum” should lose all its meaning in cricket’s literature. “If a win in one game guarantees a win in the next then we should have thrashed England at Headingley.” These were the words of Virat Kohli as he reflected back to the third Test. These are also the words that will guide India to not let their guards down. England might be down but they are not out. Like how Joe Root puts it, if they were able to manage to win the crunch moments, England might have been 3-0 up rather than being 1-2 down.
But, these are the usual what-ifs when the game is over. Like it was for India in 2018. For now, if there are concerns, there are surely in England’s camp. And none more so than the workload of their pace spearheads.
James Anderson and Ollie Robinson are the only two England bowlers to play in all Tests so far. Naturally, they are the most over-worked of the pacers. This puts England in a conundrum. First, the stock of bowlers (or the lack of it) on the bench implies that they cannot afford to rest either of Anderson or Robinson without ascertaining a drop in quality.
Second, if either of the two was to break down in the middle of a Test, England might then hope for the skies to open up and spare them, depending on when exactly the breakdown occurs. Third is what Australia faced at the Gabba earlier this year against India when they paid the price of not having rested their seamers well enough.
At 39, Anderson might feel fitter than ever before. But, he has so far delivered 241 overs in this home season, the most since the start of 2015. Even in the thick of things, the Kohli-Anderson battle has been a sub-plot in itself. All eyes are on the endgame.
Jos Buttler missed the fourth Test to join his wife for the birth of their second child. England added him back to the squad for the fifth Test. As Root confirmed ahead of the Test, being the vice-captain, Butler walks back into the XI and will don the gloves to keep wickets as well. Having averaged 14.4 in the first three Tests, whether it is a boon or a bane for the hosts is still debatable.
Buttler’s inclusion also means England will now have to choose one of Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope for the number five slot. They started off with Bairstow but he has only one 50+ score in seven innings. But, his presence in the slip cordon might help England avoid the debacles of the Oval. On the other hand, Pope top-scored for England across the two innings in the last Test, which makes his case stronger.
The only headache for India
“The form of Ajinkya Rahane is not a concern at the moment.” Vikram Rathour put his weight behind India’s vice-captain at a time when Rahane finds himself in what can be a lonely place when everyone around him is enjoying the time of their lives while he seems to be missing straight balls on a flat wicket.
All of India’s cherished away-wins in recent years have seen a contribution from the vice-captain in some way. The win at the Oval was a rare blip. But a Test average of 19.6 this year in 19 innings across geographies are not the numbers worthy of a number five in this Indian side. Given India’s lack of belief in the abilities of Hanuma Vihari, Rahane might get one more go. Unless of course, they see merit in Vihari based on his ability to bowl off-spin on what is expected to be the driest surface of the summer.
Looking at the numbers from the Hundred, Old Trafford did show affinity to spin with the lowest run-rates and bowling average for the tweakers among all venues. However, the data from Tests since 2018 paints a completely different picture, putting it the next-best batting ground after the Oval.
Expectations of spin will naturally start the conversations around Ravichandran Ashwin. England have added Jack Leach to the squad for precisely that reason. However, the weather forecasts predict rain on all five days and might lead to India sticking to the combination that has worked for them so far, with a fresh Mohammed Shami back in the mix. The only other change might be a break for Bumrah owing to the heavy workload in the series. But a rest for him will be a relief for England for obvious reasons.
England too might go in with only their main spinner – Moeen Ali – as they did in their last three Tests at the venue, all of which they were able to win. After all, it has been pace that has given direction to the series so far.
Fifty years after India’s win at the Oval, there were no recollections of an Indian pace unit deflating the home side on a seemingly flat wicket using reverse swing. Michael Atherton on air had to draw examples from India’s neighbour to foretell the set-up. For India, away victory used to be rare. In SENA countries, they were elusive. With the switch from spin to pace, it is now becoming a habit.
England: Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed, Dawid Malan, Joe Root (c), Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow/Ollie Pope, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Ollie Robinson, James Anderson/ Saqib Mahmood.
India: Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah/Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj.