Old Trafford, Manchester
With the series at 1-1 after a drawn first test, England have the momentum going into the fourth test at Manchester—a far cry from their utter disarray after the Lords’ Test. With the monkey of their back (winning their first test in a year after 12 matches), they will look to expose an inexperienced Indian team further on their own turf. Suddenly, their out-of-form players are gaining confidence again (perks of playing a long series against the same team), and India are being pressed and wounded the same way they were in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and (2011) England. Once again, they resemble the overseas lambs for proverbial slaughter, under a leader who seems to be unsure of a strategy when ahead in a match or series. That his brave short-ball strategy worked at Lords was down to England’s harebrained shot-selection and batting, where they decided that Ishant was easy enough to butcher and go for an unlikely win. They gambled and lost, whereas India were quite simply outplayed in every department in the next test.
Captain Cook is back in form, and his two half centuries at the Rose Bowl gave England a much-needed start in both their innings. He has been short of luck, but his captaincy left nothing to chance—and batsmen like Ballance, Bell and new keeper Buttler backed his desperation and slaughtered the Indian bowlers. Their only concern is opener Robson—who has been short of runs so far, but could be given another chance in a winning team. Bowlers Anderson and Broad were unplayable in Southampton, but Cook will do well to understand that Woakes and Jordan aren’t the support he needs. He will have to bolster the attack with Steve Finn, who will replace the injured and impressive Plunkett. Ali’s performance took the spotlight off the supporting act failures, and maybe it makes sense to bring back Ben Stokes—if only for his bowling, despite his batting failures so far. With Anderson, Broad, Finn and Stokes, India’s batsmen will get no respite.
STAR PERFORMER: Moeen Ali. He is the perfect batting all-rounder they need, but Cook understands that he isn’t their long-term spinning option to replace Swann. They will still have to look around, but for now, he has fooled the Indians into believing he was easy fodder.
Dhawan will have to make way for experienced Gambhir, while Rohit might have to make way for a bowling all-rounder Ashwin—who despite his horrific overseas record might find a place in a team desperate for balance. Rahane has been the only shining light in a mediocre batting performance so far, with stars like Kohli and Pujara failing to get going. Vijay failed at Southampton, but ruled the first two tests with sturdy performances—and looks assured at the crease. He will have to continue his consistency though, with the other opener slot unstable. The way they unraveled on the last day at Rose Bowl without a fight would suggest that the pitch had demons. But that wasn’t the case, because they played Moeen Ali without a plan, unsure of whether to attack or defend, and ended up falling prey to a bowler they’d have had for breakfast on subcontinent pitches. Dhoni’s few half centuries haven’t really done justice to his reputation and Jadeja’s foolhardy batting only worked at Lords with a bit of luck. They need to apply themselves more like Bhuvi does, and put a price on their wickets. With Ishant unavailable, they may want to include Aaron at the expense of unlucky Pankaj Singh—a genuine wicket taker.
STAR PERFORMER: Ajinkya Rahane. He played one of the best Indian innings on foreign soil in the first innings at Lords, and continued with two half centuries (in vain) at the Rose Bowl. He is India’s new VVS, and is finally doing justice to his potential. Rohit will do well to take a leaf or three out of his fellow Mumbaikar’s book.
Unless India play to their strengths and attack in the field for a change, they stand no chance of winning another test this series. For now, England are favorites to win atleast 1 of the next 2 tests.