If England is the birthplace of cricket, then India is surely its rowdy university frat house. Nowhere else in the world does cricket have the ardent, almost zealous even, support that is seen in India, the sport’s largest fan base. Those lucky enough to play for their nation in India are viewed with the same adoration as the British public view our footballers, while the very best transcend any kind of sporting fame which we would, with greats of past Indian sides like Sachin Tendulkar as popular as our most famous movie stars.
With this tide of support behind them, the Indian test side has been extremely consistent for a while now. Of 13 series played since they last visited England in 2014, they have lost only two and drawn one; a run of dominance which has seen them reach the top of the world test rankings. They won with ease the last time they met England on their home turf in a series which saw England’s total pass 300 only four times in 10 innings while the hosts racked up scores of 631 in Mumbai and 759-7 dec. in Chennai.
And yet their record in England is poor, having only won one series in England since 1986. Last time they graced England’s shores, they took a surprise victory at Lord’s before capitulating to three heavy defeats, while they were whitewashed 4-0 in the prior series that saw England reach the top of the world rankings.
What are their chances this time around? The key to any series in England is, as always, the conditions. It is a well-known fact that the blazing heat and dry pitches of India are the apples to the swing and seam of English cricket’s oranges, and had this summer been the usual cool, damp affair which we enjoy moaning about every year then there is a chance that the Indian’s might face the same kind of swing induced batting collapses they endured last time out. But as the state of my front lawn will attest, the country has barely seen a drop of rain in months bar the odd instance of thundery entertainment, and this plays right into the hands of the Indians. It is hard to think of a better Test batting lineup in test cricket, with captain Virat Kohli picking up the mantle left by Sachin Tendulkar, and the runs may well flow for the visitors should the conditions echo those of the subcontinent.
Indeed, some might argue that it is Kohli who holds the key to the series. He averaged only 13.40 in the 2014 series, undone by the swinging ball and seaming pitches. Given his career average of 53.40, an in-form Kohli may well prove devastating in a high scoring series. And yet, the Indians have shown they are not yet fully comfortable when the ball is swinging. In the recent tour match against Essex in Chelmsford, opener Shikhar Dhawan bagged a pair against what was effectively a second string Essex attack as India made 395 and 82-2 before the match was curtailed due to rain. Should the more typical English summer return, India’s struggles against England’s world class seam attack may well rear their ugly head once more, and with their own seamers not quite to the same standard as the likes of Broad and Anderson in English conditions, this could prove problematic for the visitors.
Where India apparently do hold the wool over English eyes is in the spin department. The hugely entertaining and close fought ODI and T20 series played over the last few weeks threw left arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav into the limelight with figures of 5-24 in the first T20 at Old Trafford and 6-24 in the first ODI at Trent Bridge. England struggled to pick the 23-year-old’s variations throughout the two white ball series, but the brilliant batting of a resurgent Joe Root in the final two ODIs somewhat nullified his threat, himself having been dismissed numerous times in the previous games by the mystery spinner.
Many question how effective Yadav might be in test cricket, with no sweepers to protect against bad deliveries and more time for batsmen to learn to pick his variations, and his selection would likely force one of India’s more established spinners in Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja from the side, but should the pitches look likely to take a turn it would not be surprising to see the young spinner selected, even potentially in a three man spin attack alongside Ashwin and Jadeja. England’s weakness against the turning ball, and especially against mystery spin, is long established, and it would seem a missed opportunity for India if they did not capitalise upon it.
So how about the England batting side? For once there appears to have been a degree of consistency of selection, with the same core lineup remaining from that which faced Pakistan earlier in the summer. Captain Joe Root will look to continue the form he showed in the final two ODIs into the test series, and with his last test ton now almost a year ago, a return to form for him may prove to be a series winner for England. Jos Buttler showed promise in the lower order on his return to tests against Pakistan, and his extraordinary performances in the one-day arena against Australia, including almost single-handedly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the final ODI against Australia, should allow him to reach new heights.
Another critical factor will be, as always, a certain Ben Stokes. In the cricket he has managed to play this summer, limited due to an injury sustained during the Lord’s test against Pakistan, his form has been mixed, with some impressive scores and bowling performances mixed with some that he would rather forget. Crucially, he has not passed 50 in first-class cricket this season, and it is his runs which will prove essential to the England cause. Most worryingly, Stokes will miss the second Test at Lords entirely due to a court appearance following his alleged brawl outside a Bristol bar last September. Let us hope that it is not in the Lord’s test when his match winning contribution is needed most.
What would an England squad selection be without controversy, and, fear not, this one has plenty, even if it is not amongst the batsmen for once. No, this time everybody has their box shorts in a twist over the recall of legspinner Adil Rashid. Since he last played Test cricket for England in late 2016, Rashid has established himself as a vital member of the England white ball side and had signed a white ball only contract for his home county of Yorkshire believing, as did many, that he was no longer in the frame for test match selection. And yet, here we are.
It’s a decision which former England captain Michael Vaughan has called “ridiculous”, comments which Rashid himself called “stupid”. Aside from playground insults, Rashid’s selection does fly in the face of the last three years of England selection policy, with, barring a few exceptions, those players seemingly more suited to the one-day game not being selected for the test arena and vice-versa in a policy invoked following the 2015 World Cup. Many also argue that there are those within the county game who deserve a test call up ahead of Rashid, whose test match bowling figures are far from stellar. Surrey’s Amar Virdi has shown promise in first-class cricket, while Somerset’s Dom Bess will surely feel hard done by following a solid performance in the two tests against Pakistan earlier in the summer.
With figures of 3-49 and 2-38 in the final two ODIs, however, Rashid is in fine form. It is extremely unlikely that he will play as a lone spinner, instead he will play as a second spinner alongside close friend and, last time around, tormentor of the Indians Moeen Ali, who himself has been recalled following a poor winter. Rashid is a fine lower order batsman, meaning his inclusion in the side is actually quite risk-free, especially with the extra bowling options the likes of Stokes and even Root provide.
Most importantly, the inclusion of Rashid is something different. We have been crying out for a change from our meat and two veg right-arm pace bowlers and boring up and down off-spin for years now. Sure, in English conditions it’s reasonably effective, but abroad it’s ineffective, as last winter’s Ashes horror show proved. For all his flaws, Rashid does possess a dangerous googly, and that ability to turn the ball both ways is something that can get in the heads of even the finest of batsmen. Kohli himself was clean bowled by a Rashid leg break in the final ODI, a delivery which may well play on the mind of the Indian captain.
All in all, the series is set up to be a classic. India, the best side in the world, are taking on an England side with so much potential and even more to prove. As for the result of the series, it surely all depends on the whims of the English weather. Should the rains return, and the pitches return to life, I can’t see a way past Broad and Anderson for India. If the summer continues to be hot and dry, then it will come down purely to who can score more runs, and on evidence of the last few years that is almost certainly India.