England playing India in their backyard has more or less been a cakewalk since they last lost a series against them in 2007. Since then, India have managed to win just two Tests and lost 12 in England (including WTC final), during which they also suffered a humiliating whitewash in 2011.
In 2018, while the scoreline suggests India lost the series 4-1, a better collective effort could have seen them home at Edgbaston and also in Southampton – matches in which India lost by 31 and 60 runs respectively. Such narrow defeats makes a team stronger and since then, India have gone on to win back-to-back series in Australia – a few wins coming with an extremely depleted side.
As far as England are concerned, they lost to New Zealand recently at home and before that they were thrashed 3-1 in India.
Since Alastair Cook retired in September 2018, England’s top-order has not been among the best. The top three have scored at an average of 30.5, which is among the teams in the lower half of the table and their problems do not seem to have eased. 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 long run.
After a poor performance in India, Burns bounced back well against the Blackcaps, scoring 132 at Lord’s and followed that up with a gritty 81 in the next Test at Edgbaston. Added to that, he has been in top form in the County Championship this season in which he has already struck seven fifties and a ton in 14 innings. Getting a start has never been a problem for Burns, but he has more often than not, failed to convert them into something really substantial.
With runs under his belt, this could be a great chance for Burns to further stake claim to his place at the top with a good series against India. Since Burns’ (1,529) Test debut in 2018, only Joe Root (2,435) and Ben Stokes (1,852) have scored more runs for England.
Including Burns, England have tried nine openers since Cook’s retirement, Sibley being one of them. Seeing out the new ball requires a special bit of skill and Sibley seems to be up for it more often than not. The Surrey batsman has always looked assured in defence, but has not been able to churn out runs quite well in the recent past. In fact, in his last 10 innings, Sibley has been dismissed for a single-digit score on seven occasions. In the series in India, he was often bamboozled by the spinners as he was unable to differentiate between deliveries that would spin and go straight on, which would more often than not lead to his downfall.
50% of Sibley’s dismissals in Tests have come between balls 1-30, after which it will become more and more difficult to get rid of him. Even in England, he is dismissed 41.7% of the time in the aforementioned ball range. This window could be India’s best chance.
As far as England's No. 3 Crawley is concerned, he has not been at his best since he made that 267 against Pakistan. He has played 12 innings since then, scoring 123 runs from 12 innings at a low average of 10.25 since then. However, until that mammoth score, Crawley averaged a healthy 48.61. England will need the prolific Crawley to step up in the series against India.
With Ben Stokes out, Ollie Pope to miss at least the first Test, the onus to chip in with more runs should be on England’s top three and not just allow Joe Root to bear the brunt. Root has contributed over 15% of England’s runs since 2018 and among the runs scored by the middle-order (4-7), the England captain has scored over a quarter (25.25%) of the runs in this period.
With India not lacking the firepower, especially when it comes to the new-ball bowlers, England’s top-order will thoroughly be tested. If they can prove their mettle in this series, it could certainly behoove England in the long run.