At this point it is a truism that England face their most testing (no pun intended) year of cricket in recent memory. Following their impressive 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka, Joe Root’s men tour India playing four tests, before welcoming the Indians to England for five tests.
Add onto these two tests at home against world number one side New Zealand before going to Australia for the Ashes and it is hard to see how England will manage such a packed schedule. Already, ahead of their tour of India, players are being rotated having spent months on end in various bubbles. Wicketkeeper-batsman Jos Buttler is returning home after only the first test, and key men Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer did not even play in Sri Lanka, not that they were needed.
England, though, have cause to be optimistic about their chances this year. Leading this optimism is captain Joe Root, making 228 and 186 in the tests against Sri Lanka. His batting in the face of spin, especially against Embuldeniya, showed his mastery at the crease. Everything from his footwork to his shot selection, when other English batsmen seemed perplexed, demonstrated a man in rare form. Root’s 186 was particularly impressive, being perhaps the finest innings by an England batsman in Asia this century not played by Kevin Pietersen.
With the tour of India starting on February 5 in Chennai, England have a lot to consider in terms of selection. The return of Rory Burns and Ben Stokes will cause a shuffle in the batting lineup. Moeen Ali’s availability will also give England further bowling options.
I would think India will be reticent to produce a raging turner
Of course, much will depend on the pitch India prepares in Chennai. If I were to hazard a guess, I would think India will be reticent to produce a raging turner, as this would bring England’s spinners more into the game. Instead, it will likely favour the skill and experience of the world’s leading spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin. As well, the inability of England’s batsmen to pick left-arm spin in Sri Lanka should encourage India to select the likes of Kuldeep Yadav.
This ultimately brings us to England’s biggest challenge this series: taking 20 wickets a game. England’s batting, with Root effervescent and Stokes returning, should be solid, but the bowling has many question marks hanging over it. England’s spinners in Sri Lanka, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, took wickets, but more through disgraceful Sri Lankan batting than bowling skill.
Surprisingly, the highlight of England’s bowling in Sri Lanka was Stuart Broad in the first test and Jimmy Anderson in the second. Though both went through long spells in sapping heat, they refused to concede runs even when the wickets dried up. Anderson’s 6-40 from 29 overs in the first innings of the second test was especially impressive. Anderson has little to prove, already having taken more wickets than any other seamer in history. Yet his continual drive to improve has made him a genuine option in the subcontinent and it is hard to think of a more skilful bowler than Anderson.
We can’t forget how India capitulated all out for 36 in Adelaide barely a month ago
England’s rotation policy seems to stipulate that Anderson and Broad shouldn’t play together, but with a wicket not offering much to the spinners, perhaps they could play together. They are England’s best bowlers by quite a distance, and with Archer and Stokes able to operate as strike bowlers, and Leach supported by Root’s part-time spin, England would have enough to compete with India’s batting. Though formidable, especially at home, we can’t forget how India capitulated all out for 36 in Adelaide barely a month ago.
India’s depth of talent is frightening, but England should not resign themselves to the 4-0 whitewash that much of the media has predicted. Root is a shrewd captain, and this England team has made winning away from home a specialty.
The last touring side to win in India was England in 2012. Then, Swann and Panesar outclassed India’s spinners on their own wickets, Cook ground down all comers, and Pietersen demonstrated the zenith of his remarkable talent. The England squad of today will need to channel these past glories to enter what promises to be a remarkable series.