England-India: the key questions this summer
The five-test series between England and India, which began on July 9 in Nottingham and will conclude in the middle of August at The Oval, is less a clash of heavyweights than an intriguing duel between two heavily scarred prize fighters hoping for one last title shot. Its presence at the top of the bill and not somewhere on cricket’s undercard owes more to past glories and intriguing subplots than the form of either coming into the series.
What the series will continue to be, though, is an accurate barometer as to where each side is heading. Although England’s recent defeat to Sri Lanka could conceivably have been reversed had the cricketing gods been a little kinder, there is not much room for luck in a five-match showdown. The poor batting, wayward bowling and unimaginative captaincy that punctuated the first two matches of the series have demonstrated that England haven’t learned too many lessons this summer.
India, for their part, are coming off a humiliating series loss to New Zealand, during which an anaemic attack was put to the sword by Brendan McCullum. They have begun their tour well, but they have their own puzzles to solve as they seek to rebuild in the wake of high-profile retirements.
Here we look at the critical questions that will be resolved over a congested schedule that begins again on Saturday, July 26th.
1. Which captain will survive?
It’s no idle hyperbole to suggest that Alastair Cook’s future as England captain – and perhaps also his place in the team – depends on the next three weeks. He entered the India series without a Test win in exactly 11 months, a span that has included a five-nil hammering in Australia, a first ever home loss to Sri Lanka and a Shane Warne op-ed that insisted Monday’s play at Headingley in June was “the worst day of captaincy I have ever seen at international level in almost 25 years in the game”. File that under “unequivocal”. It’s not just conservative fields, fear-fuelled declarations and grimly one-dimensional bowling plans, though. As an opening batsman, he hasn’t notched a century in 27 matches. A series defeat will surely spell the end of his tenure.
MS Dhoni is hardly sailing on calmer waters. Before the series, Dhoni hadn’t marshalled an overseas victory in 14 tests and was severely criticised for his failings in New Zealand, where his perceived mistrust in his bowlers famously included a refusal to take the new ball until the 146th over. Sourav Ganguly also called his captaincy “obnoxious”. At least his position in the side isn’t quite as fragile.
2. Will England solve their middle-order muddle?
England’s batting line-up is, frankly, a bit of a mess, with the middle order in particular an ongoing cause of palpitations. On the calamitous tour of Australia, only one batsman between number four and seven registered a century in 10 innings – and that was from Ben Stokes who has since registered a horrendous sequence of failures. Things improved earlier in the summer, with Joe Root’s memorable double hundred at Lords and a combative century from Moeen Ali in Leeds, but there is an inconsistency and fragility about the line-up that makes the absence of Kevin Pietersen for distinctly non-cricketing reasons all the more indefensible. Much rests with Ian Bell’s ability to turn pleasing cameos into large, match-changing scores – a habit he seems to have lost of late.
At the top of the order, Sam Robson looks to have the requisite fire the belly, while Gary Ballance has deputised well for Jonathan Trott. Whether Alistair Cook can ensure he is around long enough to guide the youngsters through the early part of an innings will play a crucial role in England’s run-scoring ability.
3. Can India take 20 wickets?
For England’s batting, read India’s bowling. While there are flickers of optimism, the ability of the attack to press home an advantage will be sorely tested in such a congested schedule – especially without the experienced Zaheer Khan. After the travails in New Zealand, not least the second innings in Wellington where four bowlers conceded 100 runs, it’s the one factor that could well determine India’s success.
Much will rely on Ishant Sharma, a solid paceman who has the ability to move the ball off the wicket in English conditions – as he proved at Lords. After Glenn McGrath suggested “it is time he put his hands up and be more consistent”, he seems to have prospered.
Elsewhere, there is promise but little experience. Bhuvneshwar Kumar will try to be an Indian Jimmy Anderson, with lateral movement through the air both ways, while Mohammed Shami will be in the Stuart Broad role: short, sharp bursts of aggression. Whether India go with two spinners will be dictated by the weather, although in a damp summer, it’s doubtful whether both Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin will play – meaning the former will probably get the nod.
4. Who will be England’s first change?
With exactly 700 test wickets between them before the start of the series, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad remain the constants in England’s attack – although England bowling coach Peter Moores has doubted whether the pair can each play in all five tests. Where there are genuine question marks, though, is in the supporting cast. Liam Plunkett managed to snaffle nine wickets on his home ground of Headingley against Sri Lanka but the round-the-wicket, into-the-ribs strategy will work less well against India’s top order, while Chris Jordan has yet to show he can genuinely trouble this level of batsmen. The options seem to rest with Ben Stokes, an decent all-round cricketer, and Yorkshire’s Tim Bresnan, although neither have consistent five-wicket potential.
That leaves the spinner. England haven’t be so short of candidates since Ian Salisbury’s wayward leg-breaks were regarded as a solution in the early 1990s and it looks as though Moeen Ali and Joe Root, still no more than capable part-timers, will be required to turn the ball. India’s top order will certainly be breathing easier once the first 30 overs have been completed.
5. Who is the next Tendulkar… or Sehwag?
Experience, particularly of playing in English conditions, is an issue throughout India’s line-up. Only three of the Indian squad – Dhoni, Sharma and Gambhir – have played a test match in England before and only four have actually been on a winning India side away from home. None of the 18-man squad has ever previously played a played a five-Test series.
However, there are far fewer doubts about the long-term prospects of, say, Pujara and Kohli, than their counterparts in England’s batting line-up. Indeed, Pujara looks the likeliest. In 19 tests, he has amassed 1,650 test runs at an average of nearly 59, demonstrating he has the raw talent to become a fixture at number three, and now has the chance to demonstrate that his old-school, bottom-handed approach can work when the pitch is green and ball swinging.
3rd Test (Southampton)
TV: OSN Sports from 2pm
4th Test (Emirates Old Trafford)
TV: OSN Sports from 2pm
5th Test (The Oval)
TV: OSN Sports from 2pm