India, England set out to counter the unknowns in a must win Test

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23 Feb 2021 | 08:22 AM
authorSomesh Agarwal

India, England set out to counter the unknowns in a must win Test

Factors like the pitch, the ball and the dew are likely to add flavour to a fascinating contest

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“We should act as per the preference of our team, this is called home advantage. Else, take out the home and away advantage and ask the ICC to set a standard rule for pitch preparation for India and abroad.” This was how a candid Rohit Sharma dismissed the debate about the pitch for the second Test in Chennai.

Exactly four home Tests ago, India whitewashed South Africa in October 2019. Lauding the side, India’s head coach, Ravi Shastri, was vocal about taking the pitch out of the equation. It was a conscious attempt to bring pacers into play in home series for them to be better prepared for away tours. And, to avoid any future embarrassment like the Test in Pune against Australia in 2017. 

The plan to do hell with the pitch worked well when India played South Africa and Bangladesh. After England steamrolled India in all departments on an even surface in Chennai in the first Test, India resorted to the universal tactic of home advantage. The pitch was spitting dust within an hour into the first day, the ball turned square, and a better-suited India outplayed England. 

As expected, retired cricketers in East and West were out with sharpened knives to call out foul play. One of the arguments that ex-England captain Michael Vaughan had was that the pitch was bad for Test cricket as it was not meant to last for five days. 

The bias against turning tracks isn’t new. It becomes louder when the away teams are out of the contest before they realize what hit them. Sri Lanka spinners bowled 84.4% of the overs and took 92% of the wickets that fell in the two Tests during England’s tour there in January. It went unnoticed because the away team was winning. Not to mention the second Test ended in four days. 

If only a couple of England batsmen fought it out in the first innings like India’s number eight did in their second, the second Test could have gone into the fifth day. What did it expose was that Joe Root’s recent individual brilliance hid a lot of flaws in the touring side. Outside their comfort zone, England are a work in progress Test side. 

One might question India’s desperation to turn towards turning tracks despite declaring to do away with it. But, the counter-argument of them taking it on the chin when other sides resort to similar tactics warrants a mention. On a track with a variable bounce off a length in Johannesburg in 2018, India outdid the Proteas. It was the hosts who were vocal about the state of the pitch. In New Zealand in early 2020, pitches were damp to the advantage of the Kiwis who prepared flatter wickets against England earlier as green tops would have back-fired. For the record, the two Tests between India and New Zealand ended in seven days combined. There were no comments on the pitch then.

Tim Paine was eager to have India at the Gabba because he knew that the conditions there favoured his side more. When the cracks open up, the pitch is not just unpredictable, it is dangerous. The only criticism during that Test then was the lack of bouncers by the Aussies in the first innings or Cheteshwar Pujara’s technique against the short ball in the second.  

The sea of unknown

Ahead of the tour, if England fancied themselves in a fixture, it would have been the upcoming day-night Test in Ahmedabad. India have played two pink-ball Tests so far. The one at home had pacers taking 27 of the 28 wickets to fall. The other more recently in Australia where they were knocked over for their lowest-ever Test score. 

Looking at the most crucial Test of the series, there is one certainty and three variables, all of which might impact the result of the Test. The certainty is the usual challenge of batting in the twilight that would be during the second session. In that respect, it might not be a bad toss to lose, especially for England who would want to test India’s middle-order with a moving ball.

However, the variables remain in the nature of the ball, the state of the pitch and the dew factor. From becoming too soft too soon in the past, to losing its seam in the first Test, the scrutiny around SG test balls is ever-lasting. There were 72 balls supplied to the BCCI ahead of the Test against Bangladesh. For this Test, the number has come down to 36 with the balls being of the same set but with a hope of better shape retention. What transpires on the actual event is still anyone’s guess.

To continue the home advantage, India would want another turning track. However, as per the manufacturer, it might be necessary for the curator to leave 2-3 mm of grass for the ball to not lose its colour and thus its visibility under floodlights. Will that grass survive as we move forward with the Test is the second unknown. 

Clouds enable swing and seam. The lack of them encourages dew. The first is a boom for pacers, the latter a bane for spinners. Dew in the third session might decrease the effectiveness of India’s spinners and can play to England’s advantage. 

All these unknowns will be more in the minds of England than India. Predicting India’s XI isn’t a head-scratcher. A swap between Kuldeep Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah will have them cover all bases.

The headache lies with England who will either have to gamble with only one spinner or chose between one of Jofra Archer or Ollie Stone in the pace department. More cluttered than this is the conundrum for the top three. Apart from Dom Sibley, any of Rory Burns, Dan Lawrence, Jonny Bairstow and Zak Crawley can occupy the other two spots. 

While there will be uncertainties about the behaviour of the ball or the effect of the dew, the nature of the pitch for the rest of the series is an open book examination. As Rohit said “The pitches in India have been prepared like this for years. Every team take advantage of home conditions. When we travel abroad, no team thinks about us so why should we, they try to make life difficult for us.”

England need one bad session from India’s batsmen to retain the Pataudi Trophy and take them out of the World Test Championship equation. If India manages to keep England adrift with a few variables stacked against them, the fourth and the last Test might prove to be a bridge too far for the visitors. 

Probable XIs

India- Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli ©, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Axar Patel, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj

England- Dom Sibley, Rory Burns, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root ©, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Ben Foakes (wk), Dom Bess, Jack Leach, James Anderson, Jofra Archer/Ollie Stone

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