That India has won a series just once in the last 35 years highlights the steepness of scaling Peak England. But this time, more than ever before, India has an opportunity to knock at the doors.
For most teams, Test tours of England are daunting. The conditions, the unfamiliarity, the Dukes’ ball at the wrists of two of its classiest manipulators – James Anderson and Stuart Broad – make it a difficult task. That India has won a series just once in the last 35 years highlights the steepness of scaling Peak England. But this time, more than ever before, India has an opportunity to knock at the doors. England, several critics and pundits consider, are at their weakest this century, and India have a well-groomed pack of bowlers to make Virat Kohli only the fourth captain to win a Test series in England.
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Why is England considered weak this time?
There are several reasons, some recent and some not-so-recent. England have been struggling to nail down their top six for a while. Apart from Joe Root and Ben Stokes, they have tried a raft of experienced as well as young batsmen in the last five years, but with limited success. None among the experienced hands such as Don Sibley and Jos Buttler or sprouting talents Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope have found runs at a consistent churn against quality bowling firms to claim their stakes as automatics in the side. Opener Rory Burns’s rediscovery against New Zealand would infuse relief, but consistency has not been his forte either. Furthermore, there would be no Ben Stokes either, which is bad news for a Jofra Archer-less bowling unit but is probably worse for England’s batting firmament.
How will England miss Stokes?
Since the staggering Ashes hundred at Headingley, Stokes has been England’s batting mainstay, straddling the anchor-destroyer-finisher roles with inhuman adroitness. To a large extent, he had made up for England’s fragile middle-order as well as an erratic top order in the last four years. Root called him the “heartbeat”; no one would disapprove. Though Stokes has cut down his pace, he has adeptly donned the enforcer role to perfection, the Neil Wagner kind of short-ball peppering, tireless engine. His energy and vibrancy ensured that the seam-swing pair of Stuart Broad and James Anderson could replenish their ageing bodies. He was, as Anderson once called him, the “emergency man”, his partnership-breaking knack woefully under-appreciated. Root would also miss the thinker-planner Stokes was.
His like-for-like replacement, though not a clone, was Chris Woakes. But a battered heel means he would not be back till the third Test. But Sam Curran would be licking his lips at replicating his wreckage in the 2018 tour.
Does it imply that England are pushovers?
As weak as they look on paper, ignoring their collective prowess would be suicidal. They still have arguably the finest bowling pair in the history of the game in English conditions, Broad and Anderson, with a combined age of 74 and 1140 wickets, their craft and hunger still un-ravaged by age, their needle-eye vision for spotting batsmen’s mistakes as sharp as ever. They would be preying and hounding both their technical flaws as well as mental vulnerabilities. A rejuvenated Mark Wood, a resourceful Curran and a bristling Ollie Stone could sternly interrogate a group of Indian batsmen, for whom coping swing has been arduous that dealing with pace and bounce. In that sense, both teams are uniquely similar—they hinge their match-winning hopes on their generational stock of bowlers.
India would assemble, without a speck of doubt, their best ever assembly of seam bowlers, who are undaunted in giving back to England a taste of their swing-seam medicine, as well as whipping up a pace-bounce concoction of their own. India’s is a more complete unit too, now that Ravi Ashwin has emerged as an all-condition spinner, his craft shining at its brightest.
What are India’s batting woes?
The usual uncertainty at the top. Though Rohit Sharma has been imperious as a Test opener, he is still untested against the swinging, hemming Dukes’ ball in seamer-friendly conditions. Besides, his likeliest partner KL Rahul has not played a Test in the last two years, though he was India’s most fluent batsman in the warm-up, where he scored a century. Moving down, Cheteshwar Pujara has not been at his century-scoring best—a drought that goes back to 30 innings, a period in which he crossed the 60-run mark just twice, though some of those have been valuable knocks. Worse, Kohli too is enduring his worst century-less phase. Since his Test hundred against Bangladesh in 2019, Kohli has managed just three half-centuries in eight Test matches, his average of 24.64 in 14 innings the worst of his career. However, in the middle, he has looked utmost fluent. His deputy Ajinkya Rahane’s form has been erratic too. However, there is newfound depth in the lower-order with Rishabh Pant, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Ravindra Jadeja making vital runs in the near past. But leaving it to the late-order in England is akin to shooting on foot.
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