A Test at Lord’s doesn’t often need a build-up. But when England and India take the field on August 12th, the aura blanketing the contest will be that of unfinished business. Especially, if the side batting first is India. Both sides and the viewers will not help but let their minds wander to the rained-off final day at Trent Bridge, to the Test that ended with both sides caught in a dichotomy of trying to claim ascendancy on the outside but knowing all too well that they might have got out of jail.
For David Gower, speaking with cricket.com in an exclusive segment India’s English Summer, the way the first Test ended means that the series will truly now begin at Lord’s. Especially with warm England sun expected to bask the arena and keep the uncertainties of elements affecting the result at bay.
In a way, the first Test was a reflection of two sides, evenly matched in the conditions, each with somewhat similar strengths and flaws. This is an era dominated by fast men. India and England have as envious a pace attack as any. Both sides have handy all-rounders too. But while England are looking for someone somewhere to share the burden with Joe Root, India’s hallowed middle-order have for a while relied on brilliance elsewhere to bail the team out of a tricky situation. In their third tour of England, a few veterans in India’s middle-order would know that time is running out for them if they are to leave a legacy that warrants their place on the same pedestal as their immediate predecessors.
With a quick turnaround and a Test that was not challenging on workload for the players, there was no obvious reason for the two sides to make any changes to their XI. But as things stand, some controllable and uncontrollable events mean that both sides have a selection dilemma ahead of the Lord’s Test.
The conundrum for India
“Most likely it (playing four pacers and a spinner) will be a template going ahead.” Having taken 20 wickets without a lot of fuss, Virat Kohli was in his usual “since it has worked today it will work tomorrow” mode. Getting the selection right is trickier before the start of a game and is always easier in hindsight. In the final of the World Test Championship, India went with the XI a majority agreed with at the beginning. As the Test moved on, the opinions on “India should have played an extra seamer” started to flow in.
With 10mm of grass on the wicket at Trent Bridge and a rather gloomy forecast for the rest of the first Test, India went in with the received wisdom and added an extra seamer. This time, the criticism was on leaving out Ravichandran Ashwin. As expected, leaving out perhaps India’s most valuable Test cricketer overall raised an eyebrow or two. But the move had two justifications. One, Ashwin in place of Ravindra Jadeja would have made India’s XI filled with ten right-handed batsmen. And two, more importantly, Ashwin’s fitness record of lasting the full series of four or more Tests in the past goes against him. Given an option, India would rather plan the workload for their most important spinner in a way that he is available on the pitches that might provide a lot more assistance, like at the Oval in the fifth Test.
Shardul Thakur justified his selection over a spinner with two wickets in each innings. All four wickets were of decent batsmen, including that of Root in the first innings, and were at crucial junctures. Now his unavailability in the second Test puts India in a quandary.
While this might imply that Ashwin will get his place back in the side, it might not be that straightforward. India were under the same leadership group when they last played a Test at Lord’s in 2018. India got ahead of themselves and opted to add an extra spinner – Kuldeep Yadav – alongside Ashwin. On what was a green top, four England pacers packed India for a total of 237 runs across two innings.
In the last five years, Lord's is among the more pace-friendly venues, in the already tough conditions for batsmen in England.
If stats and the previous experience are anything to go by, India would be vary to compromise on pace options for a spinner. Also, the doggedness with which Jasprit Bumrah and co batted meant that for once, India’s tail outscored that of the opposition. Now that might not be evidence enough but it might let India to believe that they do not need to cushion their tail for now. "We are very comfortable with how we are placed as a batting unit, and we don't feel that we will be a batsman short if Shardul doesn't play," said Kohli ahead of the Test. Hence, Ishant Sharma pipping Ashwin to make the XI will not be a surprise.
Where will England slot Moeen Ali?
It is fair to assume that a team will not pull out a player in the form of his life from an ongoing tournament to warm the bench or carry the drinks instead. The question now is where they fit him in?
Cricket Twitter was buzzing when England announced Moeen’s inclusion in the squad. A general feeling was that of sympathy for Jack Leach. Now that might be an incorrect assumption. In Moeen, England might not be looking for a spin option but rather a left-handed batsman at the peak of his prowess to bat in the middle-order.
Root was the best batsman in the first Test and also the difference between the two sides. What he did was not new as he has been carrying this fragile England batting line-up since they set foot in Asia earlier this year.
Given the situation, Moeen might not be a replacement for Sam Curran or even Stuart Broad, who is now out of the series due to a hamstring injury. It would be either Jonny Bairstow or Dan Lawrence who might get the axe for England to accommodate Moeen. In the first Test, Bairstow might not have scored big runs but he played with a control of 88%, more than any other batsman in the Test. Hence, he might get another look-in while Lawrence is all but sure to make way for the off-spinning all-rounder.
According to Gower, the aura of Lord’s makes the visiting side improve their game a notch. The note at which the first Test ended, it will not be history that the two sides will focus on when they walk out of the Great hall. They would be looking for closure.
England: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Joe Root (c), Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler (wk), Sam Curran, Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood, James Anderson/Saqib Mahmood
India: Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj