England vs India: Preview


Sport Editor, George Roberts, looks ahead to England's five-test series against India in India.

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Image by Ben Sutherland

By George Roberts

NB - This article was written on 21st January, before the news of Bashir’s visa delay, Brook and Kohli’s withdrawal, and the announcement of England XI for the first test.

England vs India is now England’s most important test series after the Ashes. Since 2011, all the test series have included a minimum of four games, up from an average of three from the mid-1980s. Since 2010, only Pakistan and South Africa have played four-match series against England.

All this and the TV rights deal was only secured ten days before the first game. Things were not much better last time round with Channel 4 securing them with a handful of days to spare. A bleary-eyed and slightly startled Alastair Cook hosted, this time we are treated to Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen. Thankfully, TNT have now secured the rights to broadcast all of India’s home internationals, both men’s and women’s. This covers three England men’s test tours.

Perhaps this delay in rights is because it has mostly been a series where the home team has dominated, especially when India are at home. India triumphed last in England in 2007 winning a three-match series 1-0 – a score-line that feels from another world with the attitude of the current England set-up. Before that it was 1986. Although this does discount the disjunct 2022/23 series in England that was drawn 2-2.

In the subcontinent, the picture is similarly bleak. England won that famed series in 2012. Before that it was 1984/5 when England won a 5-match series 2-1 – the last five match series until India toured in 2014. Since then, India have not lost a home test series and only lost home tests against England and Australia.

The 2012 series was a classic. It was an England test team at their apotheosis, or perhaps just past it with gaps in the opening berth and number six spot. These were filled by Nick Compton and Samit Patel respectively, with the last test featuring the debut of Joe Root.

Otherwise, Alastair Cook was at the height of his powers, scoring 562 runs averaging 80.28, striking at 43.73. Kevin Pietersen averaged 48.28, striking at 57.67. Pietersen’s 186 in Wankhede is widely regarded as one of the best innings against spin. It is testament to the Bazball revolution that strike rates are now included in articles about test match cricket.

It is hard to see any England batter going as slowly this time round. The fourth test in Nagpur in the 2012 series was a turgid affair seeing England score 330 in their first innings in 146 overs, at 2.26 runs an over. A Baz-balling England might look to score a similar total in just half the overs. However, this series is going to be the greatest challenge of the McCullum and Stokes era.

England have only toured twice in this Bazball era, once to New Zealand and once to Pakistan. Pakistan being by far the closest conditions to what England might expect in India. India is certainly the real test, where you would expect England to pick two specialist spinners in every game, expecting them to be able to take the majority of the wickets.

In 2012, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar were at their peak taking 20 and 17 wickets, respectively. Both bowled huge quantities of overs between them, 185 and 183 each. Although the two leading Indian spinners, Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin bowled 254 and 236 respectively. England opened with spin (from at least one end) twice across seven innings whereas India opened with spin in all bar one. Ishant Sharma bowled 72 overs averaging 42.25 in comparison to James Anderson’s 126 overs averaging 30.25. Anderson took 12 wickets, the same number as all the Indian seamers combined.

England travel this time with Jack Leach, Rehan Ahmed, Tom Hartley, and Shoaib Bashir. Much ink has been spilt surrounding this quartet. Some bemoaned the inclusion of very inexperienced spinners. Bashir has only played six first-class games, Ahmed 13, and Hartley 20.

Leach is, surprisingly, the anomaly with 138 first-class appearances and 35 tests. Another key tenet of the Bazball philosophy has been about selecting based on attributes rather than experience. Josh Tongue was plucked from relative county obscurity and struck immediately with 10 wickets in two appearances – although he does have 50 red-ball appearances to his name.

Hartley was picked on his height and the speed at which he bowls, hoping that he will be an opposite number for Axar Patel. English conditions often determine the need for spinners to bowl slowly, with flight, in order to extract turn, making Hartley an unusual English spinner. Bashir is much the same in terms of height and, according to Graeme Swann, has longer fingers than Monty Panesar. The chances of Bashir playing seem to be slim, especially with Root always improving his spin-bowling credentials. Although it seems an interesting choice from England management for him to be water-boy rather than partaking in the Lions tour to India, featuring three 4-day games.

The squad is missing a Liam Dawson-sized hole. Although he turns it the same way as Leach he is vastly experienced, taking 49 wickets at 20 and scoring 840 runs at 40 in this year’s County Championship. He chooses instead to play in the second edition of the South African T20 tournament. After years in the wilderness from England, despite increasingly dominant performances for Hampshire, it is hard to blame him. He is the other side of 30. The chances of getting a hefty central contract are slim. So it is entirely justifiable for him to play franchise cricket.

This does not stop the armchair crowd of County Championship fans complaining ad nauseam about the devaluing of the county structure and the seeming inevitability of the rise of franchise cricket. He would have been a serious addition to the side – useful runs at eight and counterpoint to Leach. Past him, De Caires is the next highest wicket-taker of the spinners with 29 at 25.59. The reserves increasingly look dry.

In the four-match series in 2021, Leach was comprehensively out-bowled by Ashwin and Axar Patel in every metric. Ashwin took 32 wickets, Patel 27, and Leach 18. Patel averaged 10.59, Ashwin 14.71, and Leach 28.72. Patel had an economy rate of 2.24, Ashwin 2.50, and Leach 3.21. Leach had Joe Root, Moeen Ali, and Dom Bess for company last time. Leach and his supporters will have to seriously up their game in order to compete to take 20 wickets in a game. Or, Stokes will have to work out how Atkinson, Anderson, Wood, and Robinson can take a serious number of wickets in unhelpful conditions. Expect some umbrella fields.

With such a bleak outlook on the bowling, Foakes must keep without question. When wickets will be hard to come by, every half chance must be taken. Something that Bairstow simply cannot do, as demonstrated all too painfully during last summer’s Ashes. Scoring runs won’t be England’s main problem, taking wickets will.

Prediction – 4-1 India: England to win a game thanks to some reverse swing magic from Anderson and Wood.