England vs India Series Preview
In August and September, the World Number 1 Test side India take on the World Number 5 side in England. India arrive after a very competitive test series in South Africa which the hosts took 2-1 looking to prove that they can consistently win away from home.
Lots has been made about India being 'weak' away from home, and while this applies (quite spectacularly) in Australia and South Africa, their record in England since 1970 is a lot more favourable. Since 1970, India have won 3 test series in England compared with England's 4 wins in India (both out of 11). The fact that England are considerably weaker than their world number 1 side in 2011 means that this could be a very big opportunity for India to win in England. If Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah were fit then India would be clear favourites but these 2 injuries have pushed the balance in favour of England.
The first thing that both teams will have to decide is the balance of their bowling attacks. An abnormally hot summer means that spin will play a larger role than expected With both sides having fast bowling all rounders in Stokes and Pandya, it is for both sides to decide if they want to play 1 or 2 spinners, and which spinners they should be. Ben Stokes is more reliable than Hardik Pandya as a third seamer so it seems more likely for England to play 2 spinners (Moeen and Rashid) than India (despite India having 3 fine spinners). Both sides must decide who their strongest spinners are and back them throughout the series. Personally, I feel that Adil Rashid and Kuldeep Yadav should be introduced later on in the series when the hype surrounding them has decreased and they can be used as surprise packages.
After the announcement of England's test squad for the first test, it is clear that England have one clear weakness : their top order. Keaton Jennings will be under immediate pressure as Alastair Cook's 13th opening partner since Strauss' retirement. He looked solid enough against Pakistan and should keep his place through the series despite there being intense competition in Rory Burns and Nick Gubbins (Nick Browne is also an outsider to this conversation but will need substantial Division One runs for Essex over the next few years). Dawid Malan looks very vulnerable at number 4 against the moving ball. Surely there has to be a better number 4 than Malan in the first class game (Livingstone, Lawrence, Hildreth, J Clarke?) Lots of these options are young but are worth investing in for England. Then England's strongest point, their middle order. Bairstow, Stokes, Buttler and Moeen (if they choose to play him) is a tough middle order to crack for the Indians, especially as Bairstow and Buttler look to be in the form of their careers.
The main threat for India will come from Anderson and Broad, with Moeen Ali and Stokes as back up. India will prefer to see Adil Rashid instead of Sam Curran or Jamie Porter but there could be lots of wickets in the series for someone like Porter as India may look to get after him after tight spells from their 2 stalwarts. It goes without saying that the performances of England's 4 senior most players of Cook, Root, Anderson and Broad will be key if England are to win the series.
Expected Team : 1. A Cook , 2. K Jennings , 3. J Root (c) , 4. D Malan , 5. J Bairstow (wk) , 6. B Stokes , 7. J Buttler , 8. M Ali , 9. S Broad , 10. J Porter / A Rashid , 11. J Anderson
India have 2 main issues in terms of selection they need to solve before this test. The first is the mystery of the top order. Murali Vijay looked reasonably fluent in the warm up game in Chelmsford, back to his usual leave the ball outside off policy (a welcome change after a more attacking and less successful Vijay in South Africa). Therefore, Vijay is a certain for the first test, as is KL Rahul who also looked comfortable. This means that there is only one spot for either Shikhar Dhawan or Cheteshwar Pujara. The idea of playing Shikhar Dhawan overseas is one that I have never agreed with as he is too flashy to be playing in the top order and is vulnerable outside his off stump. This works in Asia where the new ball doesn't move as much but it can backfire in South Africa, England or New Zealand where the ball is constantly swinging. Dhawan has been compared to Virender Sehwag in the past ; Sehwag is a once per generation kind of talent and such attacking openers are rare, they cannot be the norm. With the exception of David Warner, all of the attacking openers we see in ODI cricket are either not in the test team after having struggled or bat in the middle order. Some examples are : Rohit (dropped after batting in middle order), Guptill (dropped) , F Zaman (middle order), Hales (dropped), Dickwella (middle order), de Kock (middle order). However, with the pitches likely to be dry and lateral movement reduced, Dhawan, in theory, could have been a good choice at the top for this series if he had lasted longer than a grand total of 4 balls against Essex's 2nd XI bowling attack. Cheteshwar Pujara has had stints with Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire in the County Championship (with admittedly underwhelming results) and has to be relied upon to (along with Vijay) protect Kohli and Rahane against the new ball. Dinesh Karthik is a safe bet at number 6 and adds good depth (compared to the injured Saha) with the bat but he is an inconsistent keeper. Considering the other option is Rishabh Pant, DK is by far the best option available to India as he is a much more experienced batsman and a better keeper than Pant at this point. Hardik Pandya will be key to India this summer, if he can consistently score runs and bowl at a good economy rate then it will be a huge bonus for India.
The second main headache for India is team composition. Do they play 4 seamers and a spinner and therefore pick Shami, or do they play 2 spinners and if they do, which 2 spinners do they play? In all likelihood, Ravi Ashwin will start as India's main spinner like he did in South Africa (especially after Jadeja struggling in his 2 overs vs Essex). It would be a huge gamble to play Kuldeep Yadav as the only spinner and one that India should not be willing to take. Ashwin showed signs of improvement in South Africa in terms of his bowling overseas and will need to play a big role (along with Jadeja if selected) to take 20 wickets for India. Ishant Sharma has had a county spell this year and is the most experienced of the Indian pacers. He should be leading the attack this summer along with Umesh Yadav who has really found his rhythm since the IPL. Mohammed Shami, however, has been plagued with off the field issues and has to show if he still has what it takes to be a quality test match bowler. In South Africa, he tended to be expensive with the new ball and deny Bhuvneshwar Kumar the support he needed to take India into the ascendency. He would often be much better in the second and third spells but if India are to conquer the English challenge then he must be consistent whenever he is called upon to bowl.
The main threat for England will be from Virat Kohli, who looks in fantastic touch, and Ajinkya Rahane who has an excellent record outside of Asia. England's top order will have to be wary of a reformed Umesh Yadav and all of the other bowlers will need to step up along side him if India are to trouble England's top order. The key for both sides will be how quickly they can expose the respective middle orders to the new ball. For England, Kohli, Rahane and Dinesh Karthik will need to be introduced to the new ball and for India, the sooner they can get Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler in the better their chances are of neutralising the English aggressive middle order.
Expected Team : 1. M Vijay , 2. KL Rahul , 3. C Pujara , 4. V Kohli (c) , 5. A Rahane , 6. D Karthik (wk) , 7. H Pandya , 8. R Ashwin , 9. R Jadeja / M Shami , 10. U Yadav , 11. I Sharma
India have most of the same players that were here 4 years ago in 2014, the 3 main differences are KL Rahul, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya. In Pandya, India finally have an all rounder who can give them the balance they need and (in comparison to Binny) can change the game in one session. Bumrah showed signs that he can be a top class test bowler in South Africa and India will need him firing when he is fit for the second half of the series. In KL Rahul, India have finally found another top quality all format batsman, and more importantly, another solid test match opener to complement Vijay at the top so they can shield the middle order from the new ball.