Jasprit Bumrah becomes the 36th cricketer and only the first fast bowler after Kapil Dev to lead the men’s Test side in the rescheduled game that starts on Friday in Birmingham that will mark the beginning of the end for India’s series from last year.
A quick refresher ahead of the Edgbaston Test would be to remember that the visitors fought back to lead 2-1 only for the deciding encounter to be postponed just a couple of hours before it was due to begin at Manchester’s Old Trafford in September, with the tourists withdrawing due to a Covid-19 scare.
A lot has changed since then – for both England and India.
In India’s case, Virat Kohli’s resignation as captain (and a lean patch that has gone on too long by his high standards), the appointment of Rohit Sharma as the all-format captain and Rahul Dravid as head coach are some of the landmark changes.
However, Rohit, who was India’s top run-scorer in England last year, amassing 368 runs in four matches, including 127 at the Oval, will miss out due to testing positive for Covid-19 and not recovering on time. Additionally, KL Rahul who made a fine 315 runs, with his 129 the cornerstone of a fine win at Lord’s, is already out with a groin injury.
Two of India’s significant contributors last summer will be missing in action.
The elephant in the room – batting
So, the question for India ahead of the Test remains, who can India truly bank on in the batting line-up?
With Rohit, Rahul unavailable and Kohli remaining without a Test century since 2019, in which time he has averaged 28 from 17 matches, India’s Achilles’ heel remains the batting.
In an interaction organised by broadcasters Sony Sports Network, former India cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar also pointed the batting as the primary area that needs to be addressed ahead of the England series.
“Batting was the issue last time as well and it was just the remarkable effort of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul at the top that saw India putting up good enough scores to let their bowling then make a match out of it and then have a scoreline of 2-1. This time, with KL Rahul missing as well, it’s a massive setback for India,” the commentator had said, even before the news about Rohit was confirmed.
“But there is some hope with players like Shreyas Iyer if he gets a game, Hanuma Vihari and hopefully, (Cheteshwar) Pujara makes a comeback. But when you look at India’s seam bowling. There is quality there and quality options as well for them to choose from but batting, like last time, will be a challenge.”
A positive sign in that regard is Kohli’s batting performance against Leicester in the warm-up match where he scored 33 and 67. He will be desperately keen to carry on from there and end that lean spell by helping India to a first series win in England since 2007 and just their fourth in total.
Coach Rahul Dravid, in the pre-tournament press conference, too seemed confident about Kohli, joking that, “I kind of disagree with you [on a question about Kohli’s age] when you say he is in the wrong side of 30. He is probably in my opinion on the right side of 30.”
“I think he is an incredibly fit guy,” he continued. “He is one of the most hard-working guys I have ever come across. His desire and hunger. His whole attitude in looking after himself, his preparation and even just the way he just played the game at Leicester, batting in those conditions, scoring the kind of 50, 60 that he did.”
“He was keen on batting against (Jasprit) Bumrah and all of these guys. So, I think he is ticking all the right boxes. He is doing what he needs to do to sort of come out of it,” Dravid added.
“As players you go through these kind of phases. I don’t think you need motivation to be very honest. Don’t think in Virat’s case it is lack of motivation. You go through phases like this at times. Sometime you bat well...it’s not so much about focussing on those three figures but you know even a 70 in a difficult wicket in Cape Town...when we played at Cape Town, I thought that was very good innings.”
So it is up to players like Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, KS Bharat and Hanuma Vihari (whoever ends up making the XI among them) to take on more responsibility for the batting line-up. It is desperately needed to be able to counter the threat of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow who scored 396 and 394 runs respectively in the three Tests against New Zealand.
Ashwin vs Jadeja
Bowling, as a unit, is the area India can potentially outclass England. The pace bowling attack of Bumrah (18 wickets in four Test in the series in 2021), Mohammad Siraj (14 wickets in 2021), Mohammad Shami (11 wickets in 2021) is confidence-inducing and looked in good touch during the warm-up game.
England, meanwhile, have opted to go for the tried-and-tested James Anderson and Stuart Broad along with and Matthew Potts (who picked up 14 wickets in three matches against New Zealand) in the Playing XI.
Another question that is begging to be answered for India is – will the playing XI include Ashwin Ravichandran?
England have opted to just play the lone front-line spinner Jack Leach, who claimed a 10-wicket haul in the final Test against New Zealand with Root to offer part-time help. It is safe to say that Ravindra Jadeja is the preferred option, considering he played over Ashwin in the series in 2021. The former picked up a total of four wickets in the sixteen overs in the warm-up game while the latter picked up two in the eleven overs he bowled, having only recently recovered from Covid-19.
According to Manjrekar, the team’s composition is more likely to be inclined in favour of three Indian seamers and a spinner and so they might be tempted to have an extra batter.
He said: “The choice of seamers also will depend on who can make a batting contribution. With the spinner as well, Jadeja might get the preference because of his ability to contribute more with the bat than Ashwin so the composition will completely depend on how you know there is quality bowling, but not at the cost of batting depth or batting solidity.”
Will the real ‘fearless’ cricket team please stand up?
A ‘fearless’ England side as Jimmy Anderson calls it, an inspired new captain in Ben Stokes, a bold new coach in Brendon McCullum and an in-form Root – that’s what has changed for England. As it has been dubbed, tis’ the season of Bazball.
The hosts are coming off an adrenaline-inducing high that comes just four days after completing a 3-0 rout of Test world champions New Zealand at home. England are buoyed by chasing down stiff targets of 277, 299 and 296 against the Black Caps in swashbuckling style under their new red-ball leadership duo of captain Stokes and coach McCullum look reenergised.
Before the 3-0 win over the world champions, they had won just one of 17 Tests, that came against India in Leeds last year. They were marred by criticism, intense scrutiny and a series of resignations following the Ashes defeat. However, the overhaul – both systematic and mental – is building up to be an undeniably enticing challenge for the Indian visitors.
A confident Dravid, however, does not think the tag ‘fearless’ is confined to the English side.
“Any which way they play, gives us opportunities, to be honest. We are leading the series 2-1,” he said. “It’s up to us. We’ve got to focus on our cricket, not worry too much about what England is doing and the way they are playing. We’ve to focus on what we’ve to do.
“To be honest with you, we’ve been a pretty positive side as well. We were second in the World Test Championship cycle last year, this year we find ourselves third in the table, just underneath the top two. We’ve been pretty successful in getting 20 wickets and winning Test matches. That for me is positive cricket as well.”
While India let their quality seam attack do the talking, England’s power lies in their recently re-found batting prowess. It is just one Test match, but it promises to be a cracking contest.
(With inputs from AFP)
India’s Test squad: Jasprit Bumrah (Captain), Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rishabh Pant (vice-captain) (wk), KS Bharat (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Mohd Shami, Mohd Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Prasidh Krishna, Mayank Agarwal
England’s XI: Zak Crawley, Alex Lees, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (capt), Sam Billings (wkt), Matthew Potts, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach, James Anderson