Perhaps because much of the attention is on the Olympics, or maybe because a lot of eyes were on India’s tour of Sri Lanka – the build up to the India vs England Test series has been rather quiet. It’s been eight weeks since the Indian team arrived in England. They played, and lost, the ICC World Test Championship final against New Zealand, and then had a three-week break. There were COVID-19 cases in the camp, and a few injuries. The latest one being a blow to Mayank Agarwal’s head, which has ruled him out of the first Test in Nottingham.
Eight long weeks later, India are set to begin what is being called in some quarters as one of their ‘final frontiers’. India have not won a Test series in England since 2007. They were swept 0-4 in 2011, lost 1-3 in 2014 and 1-4 in 2018. It’s also the start of a new ICC World Test Championship cycle.
But in many ways, this is also India’s best chance of winning a series in England. They lost the one-off final against New Zealand, but their previous overseas tour was a historic one: who can forget what they managed in the tour of Australia late last year? It’s that confidence that India will take into this series. They have had some injury blows, but they’ve shown they have plenty of depth in the squad to overcome all that.
One big reason why this is India’s best chance is the experience in the core of the batting line up. Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara are all in their third tours of England, and come with plenty of knowledge about the conditions. Add someone like Rishabh Pant to the mix – he already has a Test century in England – and India on paper have a solid mix.
India’s pace attack has been the talk of the cricketing world for a while now. But the lack of swinging options came to hurt them in the WTC final, and India must have learnt from that. Expect Mohammed Siraj, who can swing and seam, to play a big part in the series to fill that void. Apart from a left-arm option, India have plenty of variety in the pace unit and should challenge England’s batsmen. The spin options are excellent too; R Ashwin is bowling at his best, while Ravindra Jadeja is steady as always. Even Axar Patel, if the need arises, will have good memories of bowling to England.
England, meanwhile, have been hit by the absence of key players. Jofra Archer is recovering from an injury while Ben Stokes has taken an indefinite break to focus on his mental wellbeing. While it’s a brave and welcome move, the impact will be felt by England given that he is a star with the bat and a very useful bowler too.
Stokes’ absence will force England to change their combination, for he’s a 2-in-1 loss. But then, England have a habit of pulling out heroes especially when playing India at home. The likes of Sam Curran, who has hurt India in the past, could step up with a dual role once again. All eyes will be on Joe Root, for it’s up to him to carry this young England batting line up against an all-round Indian attack.
This is also a unique year as India and England have already played a four-match series, in India. The hosts won 3-1, giving England a hard time with some seriously spinning tracks.
England will be tempted to give it back. Green pitches might become the norm, so expect the likes of James Anderson to trouble India. It could well be his last home series against India, and he’d like to give them some revenge medicine.
The series will be a huge test of persistence and mental strength. As they say, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. India found that out in 2014. After two Tests, they were leading 1-0. But they lost the next three to miss out on a huge opportunity. Can India start, and end, well this time?
In a recent interview to Dinesh Karthik for Sky Sports, Virat Kohli said a victory in England wouldn’t mean anything more to him personally than a victory anywhere else. Kohli explained that his career won’t be defined by these achievements or milestones.
But there’s no denying that a victory would feel sweet. For it’s in England, 2014, where Kohli began a turnaround to become the run monster he is. Post the lows of 2014, Kohli returned with huge success as a batsman in 2018. Could 2021 be the year where he adds a series win as a captain to his glories in England?
If that happens, India would have also taken a huge step in the Test Championship, which they narrowly missed out on recently.