Here we are, on the eve of the biggest event of the year. With due respect to the US Presidential Elections, the prospect of India playing five test matches against England at home is just the kind of test tonic every cricket purist has been waiting for. Only a few days after South Africa, under Faf du Plessis, with Dale Steyn injured early into the match, pulled off one of the most remarkable test victories and comebacks in recent memory, it’s now time for India – under Virat Kohli and a new leadership – to reverse a rather disturbing trend this decade. England has defeated (thrashed) India in three consecutive test series now since 2012 – twice in England and once in India – which means that India’s test record against England needs some serious improvement, and fast.
This is their best chance, what with Cook’s men given a torrid time in Bangladesh, and India back to no. 1 in the rankings after a successful and hard-fought series against New Zealand. It has been eight years since India defeated England in a test series – 1-0 back in 2008-09, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, including that famous Chennai test when India chased down 387. Since then, India has won two, lost nine and drawn two in a one-sided rivalry – almost all under the leadership of MS Dhoni. It’s Kohli now, who, after defeating Sri Lanka in their own backyard, will be keen to continue breaking trends. Here are five players to watch out for during this 5-test series:
Back in July this year, during the momentous 2-2 drawn series against Pakistan, Joe Root smashed more than 300 runs in the Manchester test, including a career-best 254 in the first innings. Many declared him the best current test batsman in world cricket, and rightly so. But his reputation suffered a little in the recent 1-1 draw in Bangladesh, where he managed only one fifty in four innings, laying the foundation for England’s below-par batting performance. Root isn’t the kind of batsman who can be considered “best young talent” anymore; he has come of age and is in the same bracket as Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli, Alastair Cook and AB de Villiers at the highest level. He rarely fails for an entire series, and though Williamson would have liked to do better in his two out of three tests here last month, Root will want to emulate the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Cook and Ian Bell from England’s last tour here. He is key to their fortunes in their battle against spin – what with his swift footwork and quick evolution in sub-continental conditions. He averages 53 in 48 matches – the only England player with a 50+ average right now.
562 runs in four test matches, including 3 centuries. That was how Captain Cook led from the front in their historical 2-1 triumph in 2012, inflicting massive agony on the likes of R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in tandem with his own spinners Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. That was perhaps his greatest moment as captain, too, despite winning in South Africa later. Nobody expected them to win after losing the first test in Ahmedabad, but nobody will forget his exploits with KP in Mumbai soon after. Cook is still around, and still captain, and now England’s highest ever run scorer in tests, and most prolific player – all only at age 31, with a while to go before he fades. He played well in Bangladesh, but couldn’t rally his resources lacking quality spinners. He is aware that he has nobody of the quality of Swann this time, and will have to make up with the bat repeatedly. Will he get his 30th test century here? Nobody will bet against even his 31st and 32nd over the winter.
2016 has been a year of reckoning for Stokes, who, after starting the year with a bang with a stunning 258 against South Africa in Cape Town, also became the face of the World T20 final, when Carlos Brathwaithe slammed him for four consecutive sixes to snatch the championship from under English noses. He will hope this traumatic over changes his career the same way Yuvraj Singh’s six sixes change Stuart Broad’s career, which went from strength to strength (this is his 100th test) after 2007. Stokes averages 33 with both bat and ball, but his physical strength and pace will be of great importance to his team – who hope he continues in the footsteps of their legendary seam-bowling all-rounder, Ian Botham. Stokes has three centuries in 27 tests, and two five-fors; more importantly, when on song, he is an out-and-out match-winner with no equal. The Indian spinners will look to snuff him out the way they ruined JP Duminy and most of the Kiwi line-up, given that Stokes wasn’t very comfortable in the UAE last year against Pakistani spinners.
The quintessential Indian no. 3 is back to where he belongs – though nobody will be surprised even if he is asked to open the innings again. Pujara, after being dropped for a test in the Caribbean due to his “slow scoring rate,” regained his mojo in the New Zealand series, scoring one century and three fifties, cementing his spot after and up-and-down last few years. Cook and his men will remember, however, Pujara’s phenomenal four-test series against them in 2012, which included a double century and a century – as he ended it as India’s top scorer by almost 200 runs, with an average of 87. That was his big-ticket series, as he announced himself in the aftermath of Rahul Dravid’s retirement, hitting the stage at the right time just when India was in a huge overseas slump – which soon spread to Pujara as soon as they started playing abroad again. But this is home soil, and there is perhaps nobody better than him in these conditions. Rajkot, hosting its first-ever test match, is also his hometown. The stage is set.
Oh, England rankles him. His CV has one blot: England. He failed miserably in the five-test series back in 2014, wasn’t even picked in 2012, and averaged only 30 in 2012 on home soil. Kohli averages only 20 in 9 matches against England, which he will be desperate to overcome, just like he did in West Indies earlier this year with his first double century. He has just one fifty against them, and will want to make right all these withering statistics over the next 5 matches – where more responsibility will be on him after the injuries to Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul. He is the batsman most in form (again), and despite having played as many tests as his contemporary Joe Root, he averages only 45, which he will want to take up towards 50 – the true hallmark of a test great.
Needless to mention, Ravichandran Ashwin, India’s test man of the last four years, will want to make up for his failures with the ball against England too. He is now India’s spinning all-rounder and their most valuable player, and his performance will largely define how well India does in a series that will test his endurance, fitness and skill more than ever.