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England Vs. India: Preview

We preview the biggest series of the summer.

Skippers Joe Root and Virat Kohli with the Pataudi trophy. Image: DNA India

The English summer is upon us and what that generally means is a summer of test cricket amidst a unique background of well turned out, tea sipping, newspaper reading, pipe smoking, knowledgeable Englishmen and equally impressive ‘everyday in their Sunday-best’ turned out women among a sea of hip looking, wildly cheering, youngsters. With the curtain coming down on the world cup and Wimbledon, all eyes now turn to the next big sporting spectacle of the summer – the clash between the hosts, England, and the World’s top ranked Test team, India.

India’s travelling caravan – in a massive season of overseas tours- has rolled into its second stop in the Old Bighty. While the tour had already been underway since July, with the ODI and T20 series taking place, as also a T20 series against Ireland, the real test for India starts now – the 5 match Test series, against which this team’s competency as a travelling outfit will be measured, not to mention its legacy.

India will have to start winning tests and series abroad consistently if they are to be considered a side that travels well overseas. While they did compete well in South Africa, they still came up short losing the series 2-1, the consolation win at Johannesburg unable to mask India’s inadequacy at keeping an overseas series alive going into the last match. (India were already 2-0 down going into the Wanderers test). This series will be the ideal time for India to right that unflattering reputation it has garnered over the years.

While most teams are formidable at home, that has not been entirely the case with England. They have lost tests to India, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia and the West Indies in the last few years but have saved themselves the blushes by coming back to either draw or win the series. While most critics might say that that is all that matters, it does show up England’s vulnerability at home, when they are up against quality opposition.

In Alistair Cook England has an ageing warhorse who will be keen to continue his magnificent record against India and along with captain Joe Root, he is sure to be the mainstay of this English batting unit. England’s batting at home looks solid with Keaton Jennings, David Malan and Jonny Bairstow there to provide ideal foils to their skipper and legendary opener in laying a solid foundation, and setting the stage for their enforcers Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler to apply the finishing touches to the innings. It is England’s bowling this time around, which is a cause for concern. They have picked only 2 frontline pacemen in Anderson and Broad for the first test and if either of them have a poor series, England could be in for a rough time. While Ben Stokes does provide the 3rd seamer’s option, he is unlikely to provide adequate cover if one of the two front men have an off day or series. In such a scenario Chris Woakes’ absence will be felt even more than it already is (he also offers great value as a lower order batsman). The inclusion of Craig Overturn, or Mark Wood (if fit) as the third seamer–against a team that traditionally struggles against good pace bowling – instead of 2 spinners in Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, would have been the right way for England to go. Moeen did surprise by racking up a bagful of wickets in the last series in 2014, but you would not expect him to have the same impact this time around against a more experienced and well -settled batting lineup. While Rashid had an impressive ODI series and garnered a rich haul of wickets, he is unlikely to be able keep the heat up on the Indian batsmen in the longer format. If they do go ahead with this bowling line-up then they may play into India’s hands. England may do well to blood 20- year old all-rounder Sam Curran in place of either spinner and his left-arm bowling may well trouble India’s predominantly ‘right handed’ batting lineup (only Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav bat left-handed) than either spinner would.

The series will witness two evenly matched teams going up against each other. Image credit: ESPNcricinfo

India have their work cut out. They need to quickly decide on an opening partnership capable of handling the conditions, which means batsmen with good technical proficiency as well as patience being given the responsibility. That means Shikhar Dhawan being left out as he falls short on both counts. While he does have a 'Sehwagesque' ability to take the game away from the opposition with his attacking play, his technique seems woefully inept at handling the swinging and seaming conditions in England. M.Vijay and K.L.Rahul are the men who should be given the job of providing India with a solid platform for the middle and lower order to capitalize on. India’s other batting position that needs deep contemplation is the vital no.3 position, which has been occupied by Cheteshwar Pujara after the retirement of Rahul Dravid. However Pujara does not instill the same confidence that his legendary predecessor did with an away record average of just 35.25 as opposed to his home average of 62.42. While he is technically capable of handling the conditions, his performance thus far on away tours is definitely a cause for concern. He will still get the backing of the team management at least for the first 2 tests, but if he comes short, then India have to be proactive in handling the situation and re-jigging the batting order. Ajinkya Rahane, who made that combative century at Lord’s the last time around and who has the best overseas batting average of any batsman currently playing the game (and that includes Steve Smith, though technically he isn’t playing for a year) – 52.05, could be considered for the one-drop position, with Pujara dropping down to Rahane’s current position at 5. And if that too fails, then India need to consider giving Karun Nair a chance, as he seems technically sound albeit inexperienced, to take up the challenge. His memorable debut triple century was against the same opposition- although in vastly different conditions- and will give him some degree of confidence in answering the call and re-starting his test career. It might be left field but it maybe worth a try if India’s preferred candidates for the vital slot come up short. The most likely option though would seem Rahul coming in at 3, should Pujara fail and Rahane not be considered for that position or he fails too and India using Dhawan as the second opener (though it might not be the best way to go).

India’s bowling which has great variety, unfortunately will be severely hampered by the absence of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar (recovering from a back injury)- whose style of bowling is ideally suited to English conditions and who starred with the ball last time around- at least for the first three tests. Jasprit Bumrah, who made a telling start to his test career in South Africa, will also be unavailable for at least the first test, thereby denying India of both its first choice pacemen. Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav though still provide India with enough quality and variety to trouble England, but the main issue would be their consistency. If the bowling unit can keep up the pressure on England, then India have a real chance in the series. India’s aggressive, winning mentality will most certainly see Kuldeep Yadav being picked, with Ashwin being the second spinner and the experienced duo of Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav making up the pacers quota with Pandya in support as the third seamer. This combination will give India the best chance of winning the series. (Kumar and Bumrah can be added to the mix when they are available)

The all-rounders – Ben Stokes for England and Hardik Pandya for India, will play crucial roles for their respective teams. Both are similar players – explosive batting all-rounders capable of chipping in with crucial wickets and it is their runs and wickets that could make the difference between the two teams in the end.

Finally, the two captains - Joe Root and Virat Kohli. While Root began his stint in the hot seat with creative captaincy in the last Ashes, he soon became lost as his team began to lose and appeared as a forlorn and lonely figure rather than the man in charge. He will want to continue his stellar run against India as a batsman but equally important will be his ability to get back to his creative best and inspire his team, if they are to stifle India’s challenge. With Virat Kohli, there is no doubt as to who is the captain of the ship. India’s skipper is also the team’s best batsman and the team will once again bank on his runs to set the innings up. His record in England and his travails against James Anderson the last time he was here have been well documented and he would be keen to right that record as well. He is the inspirational figure that has galvanized this team into an aggressive, fighting unit who believe that they can win anywhere from any situation. They are yet to get the overseas results they desire on their side but with a mindset like that they will come sooner rather than later. India last triumphed over here in 2007, being whitewashed 4-0 in 2011 and losing the last series 3-1, after leading the series 1-0. Those 2 losses came under the leadership of Dhoni who was a defensive and reactive rather than proactive captain in tests overseas. With Kohli at the helm this time, you can expect the scoreline to be more favourable for India (provided his players stand up). It is legacy time, indeed for both captains and their teams.

India might well be the World’s no.1 ranked test team but it is England, who in home conditions, definitely start as favourites. Both teams have a lot at stake. England will want to establish a proud home record while India will try to create one overseas. It will be a fascinating series and one the entire cricket world will be watching closely. When the curtain finally does come down, it will be interesting to see whether at the end of this titanic duel, we will be hearing the ‘3 Lions’ roar or be seeing the Indian ‘Star’ further soar!

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