India must win the fourth Test against a ‘weak’ England, if it is to salvage its pride
With the last Test scheduled to be played at Old Trafford, where conditions are likely to suit James Anderson, the Test at The Oval beginning today must be won by India, writes Ashis Ray from London
Indian cricketers had raised hopes of an imminent breakthrough in tests - the highest level of the game - with resilient performances at Melbourne and Brisbane to win a series against a full-strength Australian side Down Under for the first time.
The euphoria, though, didn’t take into account the fact that the Kookaburra ball used in Australia, with its less prominent seam compared to its Duke counterpart utilised in England, doesn’t swing or seam beyond a point.
English conditions are very different from Australia; and an overcast and wet summer has extended the haven for genuine swing bowlers to virtually throughout the season so far. Consequently, the Indians were, first, brought down to earth in the final of the World Test Championship (WTC) at Southampton in June, when New Zealand got the better of them. Now England have heaped humiliation on the tourists at Headingley to draw level the 5-test series at 1-1, with two more battles remaining.
In the interim India pulled off a creditable victory in the 2nd test at Lord’s. That the exuberance over this result was misplaced and premature was confirmed by the outcome in the very next encounter. In the first test, at which India held the advantage before the final day was washed out by rain, and at Lord’s, where in a topsy-turvy clash, India eventually came up trumps, it was the solidity of India’s makeshift opening partnership of Rohit Sharma and K L Rahul and the perseverance of India’s pace quartet that essentially kept England at bay.
The fact though is that the Englishmen were until the 3rd test a one-man band in batting and depleted by injuries in bowling. In short, other than the brilliance of captain Joe Root – who has notched up three imperious centuries in as many tests in the series – they represent one of the most fragile England line-ups for a home engagement in their history. If India doesn't beat this outfit, Australia will mean merely a flash in the pan. Consistency is the name of the game.
It’s hilarious to read comparisons between the current Indian fast bowling combination and West Indian, Australian and Pakistani quick bowling batteries of the past. One swallow doesn’t make a summer. Besides, it was a quartet (of Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thaku and T Natarajan) with only three tests between two of them and a debutant off-spinner Washington Sundar that vanquished Australia at Brisbane.
The established speed merchants, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav, not to mention spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, were absent due to injury.
The bottom line is, over three series in England in 2014, 2018 and this one, the mainstays in the Indian middle order, namely Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, are still playing at deliveries outside the off-stump which they ought to leave alone or are misreading movement in the air and off the pitch from the England pacemen. To be on the lookout for runs is laudable. But at the test level positivity needs to be blended with patience. Wearing the bowler out, occupying the crease is tactically as important as keeping the scoreboard ticking.
Virat Kohli, the best over-limit batsman of his generation, has a slightly open stance, where his left toe is not in line with his right toe. This gives him room to innovate. The downside is, he is required to cover a few more inches of ground to reach the ball outside off-stump. A squarer stance would gain Kohli a split second to get to the line of the ball. Also, batsman-ship against seaming or swinging balls in tests is as much about shouldering arms as executing a shot. It’s about building an innings and not demolishing the bowler.
India also committed costly errors in team selection. Ashwin, in case people have forgotten, on a pacemen’s paradise in the WTC final, captured two wickets for 28 runs in 15 overs (with the best economy rate among the Indian bowlers with 1.86 runs per over) and was the only wicket-taker in New Zealand’s second innings with figures of 2 for 17 in 10 overs (again the most economical, conceding just 1.7 runs per over).
He, thereafter, was among the wickets in a warm-up game at Durham and in a county match for Surrey. He is India’s most potent all-weather bowler. One cannot fathom the wisdom of ignoring him for three consecutive tests.
Shami, Bumrah and Siraj are not authentic swing bowlers. Ishant Sharma only started producing penetrative inswingers three years ago after a stint with Sussex in county cricket. The only true outswing bowler in the Indian camp is Shardul Thakur. He demonstrated this at Brisbane and the 1st test in the present series at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. It is understandable he was not considered for the 2nd test because of injury; but given his potential in English conditions, he should have been recalled for Headingley. Indeed, he could have been entrusted with the new ball in the second innings at Trent Bridge.
Last but not the least, Rishabh Pant’s approach against the adversity of seam and swing in England has exposed his acute limitations and, temperamentally, a refusal to fight. He replaced Wriddiman Saha, probably the best wicket-keeper in the world today, because of his superior batting. He certainly repaid the selectors with his sword-fencing against pace, bounce and especially spin in Australia. But Saha would certainly not have been as cavalier as Pant has been in England on this trip.
Where the middle order has become a headache and consequently the batting demands bolstering, handing Rahul the gloves could be a solution. It’s not ideal, but Farokh Engineer kept wickets as well as opened the batting on the 1967 tour with distinction.
This would facilitate inclusion of a more reliable batsman than Pant at number six. While there’s a clamour to catapult Suryakumar Yadav into the XI, his abilities in England are unproven; and either Hanuma Vihari or Mayank Agarwal should in fairness be higher in the pecking order.
Persisting with five bowlers makes sense. But one of them has to be Ashwin, because of his sheer wicket-taking calibre, whether he replaces Ravindra Jadeja or one of the fast bowlers.
Jadeja’s two wickets from six innings in the ongoing tests is not indicative of incisiveness. He is clearly not the left-arm orthodox spinner he used to be. There’s little flight or variety in his bowling; both essential on wickets which are unresponsive to turn. It will not solve the overall problem by swapping batting positions between him and Pant.
The 4th test at The Oval – where India registered their first test win on English soil in 1971, after Bhagwath Chandrasekhar bamboozled England in the second innings with a haul of six for 38 – is crucial for the visitors.
It could swing here when the ball is new or when there’s cloud cover, but it may not deviate off the seam that much. It’s an opportunity India cannot afford to squander, for the final test is at Old Trafford, Manchester, where the wicket could be tailor-made for local man and England bowling spearhead James Anderson.
As the refrain goes: "the sun never shines at Manchester" and this could bode ill for batsmen, although India’s best ever first wicket stand of 203 in England between Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali on a sunny day in 1936 played out at this hallowed home of Lancashire cricket.