Surprisingly, everything is on mute mode. There are less than 24 hours to go for the second cycle of the World Test Championship to begin, but the build-up is silent to a fault which is normally not the case with an England vs India series. Especially counting for the fact that both sides, less than six months ago, had engrossed themselves in a highly controversial series would tell you the impact of ‘The Hundred’ and how it has listed itself as the crowning jewel of English cricket, all within a couple of weeks since its inception.
Will it have a bearing on how the ECB perceive Test cricket? We don’t have a correct answer yet. The Hundred is a desperate attempt to leverage on the capital they have invested in the past and putting a blanket on their failure to cash in on the T20 revolution. It is a multi-folded dynamism that has as much business interests as delivering some good cricket, if not more.
But then ECB would tell you that they are slated to play as many as 22 Test matches in the second cycle, three more than India, four more than Australia, and nine more than New Zealand, Pakistan, West Indies, and Sri Lanka. The priority might have changed but England will always remain the spiritual home for the longest format of the game. And as far as the contest goes, both England and India will not leave a stone unturned to make the first series of the summer a memorable one.
However, both sides have been hit hard by injuries and are set to field a rather weakened XI come August 4. India have lost Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal, Avesh Khan, and Washington Sundar while England will be without Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, and Olly Stone. India will breathe easy after Suryakumar Yadav and Prithvi Shaw finally secure permission to leave for England but the quarantine regulations would keep them away for at least two Tests. It is not an easy position to be in for both parties.
A rejigged batting order in action?
Despite poor returns in the last few Tests, Mayank Agarwal would have been the ideal fit to replace Shubman Gill. His injury has left a void and also a question mark on the Indian team combination for Wednesday. Will the management go with KL Rahul as an opener or hand Abhimanyu Easwaran the debut cap? Or is there a chance they go for the left-field solution of opening with Cheteshwar Pujara? All options are open at the moment.
There would be a few permutations and combinations regarding the top three but the biggest cause of concern will be fixing the batting order. After warming up with a century in the three-day practise game against County Select XI, Rahul showed perfect tenacity to bat in the middle-order. If he is suddenly asked to open, it might not be an ideal scenario for either party.
In the 2018 series, the Indian top seven scored at an average of 29.4, majorly thanks to Virat Kohli’s heroics, but since 2020, there is not a single Indian batsman in the top-six, barring Rishabh Pant, to have averaged more than 30. While Pujara’s returns have dwindled in the last couple of years, there is nothing earth-shattering about Kohli and Rahane either. Finding a way to score runs amidst biding time is very important in such batting conditions and how they navigate through that will decide a lot for the visitors as they return to the venue of their only Test win in 2018.
Fish without water?
Losing to New Zealand in June might have been attributed to the absence of several key players, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they lack zing to dominate a side like India even in this series. Ben Stokes is the heartbeat of this team. Since 2019, Stokes’ average of 45.00 is the highest among all English batsmen and that rises to 58.07 at home. Him pulling out at the last moment has left a huge gaping hole.
Chris Woakes has a bruised heel, which means Sam Curran will be in at number 7. In order to replicate the depth, England might opt for Ollie Robinson at number 8 but that will be only a Nicotine patch to the high provided by Ben Stokes who since 2020, has averaged 21.20 with the ball. Factor in only home conditions, this drops down to 14.36. Talk about brilliance.
While they may have found a solid opener in Rory Burns, England are yet to figure out if Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley fit into their scheme of things in the longer run. Since that 267-run knock against Pakistan last year, Crawley has managed just 123 runs in 12 innings and has got out for a single-digit score nine times. The hosts’ batting fortune will squarely depend on Joe Root, who despite his travails at home conditions, averages a healthy 50.19 since January 2020. Ollie Pope is set to return at number 5 after recovering from a left thigh muscle injury with Jos Buttler batting at number 6. On paper, they are a good batting unit but managing everything together will be pretty important.
Seize the moments, Seize the game
Contrary to what the scorecard suggests, the 2018 India-England series was far more competitive. England won it because they seized the key moments and managed to find runs from the most unlikely of sources. As Somesh explored in this week’s ‘Cricket.com Decoded’ piece, each of the three wickets in England’s lower-order (positions 8 to 11), added 11 runs more than India on an average. In both innings of a Test, this amounts to a difference of 66 runs. More than the margin to the first and the fourth Test - both India lost.
Not only the tailender runs, having an adequate amount of dynamism to compensate for the lost periods is another key to success in England. Over the years, India have failed in that regard. Be it losing wickets in a cluster or not being able to capitalize on the part, it has been a recurring pattern in overseas Test matches. The team who can do that better will hold the aces in Trent Bridge.
India: KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma
England: Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley, Zak Crawley, Joe Root (c), Ollie Pope/Daniel Lawrence, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Ollie Robinson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, James Anderson