The memories of Ajinkya Rahane and Co. conquering the impregnable Gabba are still fresh in everyone's mind but the focus now shifts to England who are in India for the next two months, playing four Tests, five T20Is and three ODIs. India's confidence will be sky high after defeating Australia 2-1 in the four-Test series despite being depleted due to many injuries and missing their key players. Meanwhile, England too have been in pretty good form and are coming into this series on the back of a 2-0 win in Sri Lanka.
England Test skipper Joe Root would be in a great headspace after dominating Sri Lanka in their own backyard. The conditions at Galle would have served as a perfect platform for England to prepare for the high-profile India series, but Root and his men would be aware of the fact that the standard of the opposition is going to be completely different. India have lost only one Test series at home in the last 16 years and England will have to come up with something special, like they did in 2012, if they want to beat the second-ranked side in their own conditions.
The tour will also mark the return of international cricket in India after almost 11 months. The first two Tests will be played in Chennai, starting from Friday (February 5), while the remaining two will take place at the new Motera stadium in Ahmedabad. The BCCI operations team and administrative set-up did a fantastic job in organising the recently-concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and if they can do the same with the England series, it will pave the way for organisers to successfully hold IPL 2021 in the country.
Talking about on-field cricket, what "India A" achieved in Australia is nothing short of spectacular. Virat Kohli went on paternity leave after India were bowled out for their lowest Test score ever in Adelaide. The likes of Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Hanuma Vihari and Jasprit Bumrah didn't play the entire series because of injuries they suffered at some point, with Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara being the only two to feature in all four Tests. Rahane did a remarkable job as the stand-in captain, but like he mentioned, this is still Kohli's team and the 32-year-old would be eager to stamp his authority in the forthcoming series.
2020 was an unusual year for Kohli. The batting maestro didn't score a single century in any format and would be itching to turn things around in 2021, starting with the England Test series. India have a formidable batting unit and would enjoy batting on home tracks after toiling hard Down Under. The likes of Rohit Sharma, Rahane, Pujara and Rishabh Pant would be difficult to control in these conditions, while KL Rahul, Wriddhiman Saha and Washington Sundar add to their batting depth. The opening combination of Shubman Gill, who was impressive in his debut series in Australia, and Rohit looks mouth-watering on home turf. The Indian team management will also be delighted to have Hardik Pandya back in full flow and would look to ease him back into action.
This will also be Jasprit Bumrah's first home Test series. The ace paceman made his Test debut in 2018 and has played 17 five-day encounters so far, but all of them have come outside India. Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Siraj have been retained after their showings in Australia, while Ishant too makes a comeback after missing the Australia tour because of a side strain. The hosts will miss out on the service of Ravindra Jadeja at least for the first two Tests but the likes of R Ashwin, Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel and Washington will all relish the opportunity of bowling in Chennai. India have a problem of plenty, especially in the bowling department and it would be interesting to see how they go about with their team combination in this series.
The home team might rotate their players, something that England have been doing of late. Jos Buttler is only going to be available for the first Test, while Jonny Bairstow, Mark Wood and Sam Curran will join the squad before the third Test. Many former England players have criticised England's much-debated rotation policy but the team management has stood by it. "We’ve got to look after our people. We’re spending a lot of time locked in hotel rooms inside bio-secure bubbles and it’s not easy. I do believe we have to be proactive in looking after them, rather than wait until there’s a problem," said head coach Chris Silverwood.
England have some players who are in solid form. Root amassed 426 runs in four innings, while James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach and Dominic Bess were all amongst wickets. England's bowling unit however will be tested against Kohli and Co. who are used to scoring big in these conditions. Jofra Archer and Olly Stone are out-and-out fast bowlers and England would need them to be at their best if they want to trouble India. They will need all the support possible from all-rounders Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali.
In Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley, England have a fragile top-order. The latter two struggled against Sri Lanka and it will all boil down to how Root, Stokes, Buttler and Bairstow (last two Tests) perform in the middle-order. England were thumped 0-4 in 2016 despite scoring 400-450 in most of their first innings across five Tests and they would know that they will have to go somewhere near the 600-run mark to put India under pressure. And, that's not going to be easy against Ashwin and Co.
There's also the World Test Championship final at stake. India are currently sitting at the top of the points table and will have to win at least two Tests and not lose more than one to confirm their place in the finale which will be played at Lord's. For England to finish in the top two, Root's men will have to win at least three games and not lose more than one. India will enter this series as clear favourites but "they are not impregnable" and the hosts would know that after breaching the Gabbatoir.
SQUADS FOR FIRST TWO TESTS
India: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vc), KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya, Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel, Washington Sundar, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur.
England: Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes (vc), Jofra Archer, Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Ben Foakes, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dom Sibley, Olly Stone, Chris Woakes.