A look at the ICC Men’s Test Team rankings will tell you that India currently sit in first place, a position that they have held since defeating New Zealand in Kolkata in October 2016. Since then they have played a total of twenty matches as the table topping nation; however only six of these have been away from home. Following the series against New Zealand, they enjoyed a run of ten successive Test matches on home soil. Then followed an away series in Sri Lanka which was won comfortably, but it wasn’t until the recently completed tour of South Africa that India first took their number one Test status beyond the subcontinent. Whilst India did win the final Test against the South Africans in impressive style to retain their top ranking, the series had already been lost. It was a loss that reinforced once again the issue that has long undermined India’s credentials as a Test power and remains the ultimate barrier to their prospects of establishing a cricket dynasty akin to the Australian and West Indian teams of recent decades. That is their lack of success away from home.
Heading into 2018 India faced twelve months of Test cricket that would provide an opportunity to finally address the consequences of the long haul flight. We have already seen a stumble at the first hurdle with the series defeat in South Africa, but the optimistic Indian fan would have taken some solace from not only the result but also the combative performance in that final Test. There is also good reason to look positively towards the end of the year and the tour to Australia. The governing bodies of both countries certainly seem to be doing their best to enhance India’s prospects of a first ever series victory down under. Whatever your views on the severity of the punishments meted out by the ACB there can be no doubt that the absence of Steve Smith, David Warner and (to a lesser extent) Cameron Bancroft will significantly weaken the Australian batting threat. Add to that the BCCI’s recent rejection of a day/night fixture in Adelaide and India will probably face the most hospitable conditions for an Australian tour since their World Series Cricket tainted visit in 1977/8.
However, before we can turn our thoughts to Australia there is the small matter of a five Test tour of England looming in August. This will be the third time that India have contested a five Test series in England and history does not offer much cause for optimism. There was a fifty-five year gap between the two previous occasions which is perhaps understandable when you consider the summer of 1959 resulted in a 5-0 whitewash in England’s favour and included three innings victories. India fared somewhat better in 2014 but still went down 3-1.
This time though it will be a vulnerable England team taking the field for the First Test at Edgbaston on 1 August and this must provide an opportunity for India to make an impact. As the English season gets underway there would seem to be a number of places up for grabs in the England team and perhaps more than one player will find the coming summer months to be the winter of his career. The last time India enjoyed a series triumph in England was in 2007 when a nine wicket haul by Zaheer Khan secured the decisive victory of that three Test series. There are just two players who remain part of the England set up eleven years later and worryingly for England they remain key to the team’s fortunes. Jimmy Anderson is clearly still England’s premier bowler despite the fact that he will have turned thirty-six by the time the series begins. He is currently second in the ICC Test rankings behind Kagiso Rabada and whilst not as penetrative as we have come to expect was still England’s best bowler during the Ashes in Australia. In English conditions India can expect him to pose a serious threat once again.
It is hard to be as optimistic about England’s batting stalwart, Alastair Cook. The debate about how long Cook can continue at the top of the order seems to have lasted as long as Cook’s resistance in some of the stand-out knocks that have dotted his illustrious career. One of these occurred as recently as the Melbourne Test in Australia where he made a mammoth 244 not out batting for over ten hours and over four hundred balls. However, the overall trend line is down. That score remains the only time that he has passed fifty in his last seventeen Test innings. Of course statistics can be shaped to support any argument and the innings prior to this run of seventeen was another double hundred (against the West Indies). Clearly the man can still produce, but it seems evident that his star is on the wane. At a time when England are struggling for stability at the top of the order the requirement from Cook is for regularity of runs rather than the occasional big score to mask the overall paucity.
England will of course be reluctant to let Cook go when there is such a dearth of options for both opening spots. At the other end, Mark Stoneman was the choice throughout the tours of Australia and New Zealand. He is perhaps the converse of Cook in that, for the most part, he provided some consistency of runs across those two tours. In thirteen innings he failed to reach double figures only twice and yet he was unable to go beyond sixty despite making four half centuries. It means that he comes to the new season just about deserving to keep his place but knowing that until he shows an ability to convert those starts into big scores he will remain a match by match prospect.
The same can be said of too many of England’s incumbents. James Vince mirrors Stoneman’s performances in many ways as England’s number three over the same period of time. Yet to score a century in thirteen appearances he averages under twenty-five at Test level. There has been some speculation that Dawid Malan might be better suited at first drop and he was certainly one of England’s better performers at number five in Australia but an average of just over thirty in twelve Tests suggests he has some work to do to secure his spot before considering promotion up the order.
It all points to a very fragile batting line up with tremendous pressure on captain Joe Root to perform at a time when he is having some major conversion problems of his own. Undoubtedly one of the leading batsmen of this generation a continuation of his recent string of half centuries is unlikely to be sufficient without pushing on to three figures at least a couple of times across the course of the series.
So do India have the bowlers to take advantage of this seemingly weakened England batting order and regularly take the twenty wickets needed? Recent history tells us that it is the medium-fast men that will be required to fire if England are to be defeated. India’s sole victory in their last tour of England came at Lords courtesy of Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s six wicket haul in the first innings and Ishant Sharma’s 7/74 in the second knock. As we have seen, in 2007 it was Zaheer Khan who delivered the wickets in the decisive match of that tour. Looking further back to India’s famous series win in 1986 victory was set up in the first Test at Lords by a three pronged attack of Kapil Dev, Roger Binny and Chetan Sharma who took fifteen of the twenty English wickets between them. In the Second Test at Headingly, Madan Lal replaced Sharma but the end result was the same with thirteen wickets falling to the medium quicks.
India have plenty of pace options to consider for the coming tour. In South Africa the Third Test victory was secured by a four-pronged attack of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma. With the exception of Bumrah, all have previous Test experience in England. This would be Ishant Sharma’s third tour. He has enjoyed mixed success taking twenty-five wickets across the seven Tests in which he has played at an average of just over forty. He will turn thirty during the fourth Test and will know that this is likely to be his last chance to have a significant impact on English shores.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami both featured in the tour of 2014. Whilst much was expected of Shami with his ability to swing the ball at good pace he took only five wickets for the series averaging over seventy. However, he is likely to get another chance to feature prominently as he is not only in the squad for the upcoming Test versus Afghanistan but has also been selected to join the closing stages of India’s A team tour of England which is a decision presumably made to give him an opportunity to acclimatise. By contrast Kumar had an impressive series in 2014 taking nineteen wickets in a losing cause. Kumar is being rested for the Test against Afghanistan but should reappear in England and will be keen to take advantage of favourable conditions once again.
The remaining incumbent from that last Test in South Africa is Jasprit Bumrah who made his debut there playing in all three Tests for an encouraging return of fourteen wickets. Add to this group the claims of Umesh Yadav and Shardul Tahkur who have both been selected for the squad to play Afghanistan, plus emerging swing bowler Rajneesh Gurbani, who makes the A team tour after impressing in the Ranji Trophy, and it does seem that India may well have the strike power to worry a fragile England. All this, of course, before the small matter of finding room for a certain Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja! Interestingly Ashwin has played only two Test matches in England both on the tour of 2014 for only three wickets. Jadeja played four matches in that series for nine wickets taken at an expensive average of forty-six. Given the likely seam friendly conditions for most of the tour plus the wealth of pace options available it seems likely that there will be room for only one of these spin twins in the starting eleven which should make for an interesting contest.
If there is depth to the Indian bowling the jewel in the crown still wields a bat. Virat Kohli’s decision to miss the Afghanistan Test to play for Surrey in the County Championship has received a mixed reaction and could even be deemed disrespectful to the Test debutant nation. However, it surely underlines his determination to make an impact this summer. He performed poorly on his one previous visit in 2014 and is yet to record a Test fifty in England. It goes without saying that a strong series from Kohli is vital to India’s prospects. The thoroughness of his preparation should give England cause for concern.
It will be interesting to see the composition of the batting line up around Kohli once the series gets underway. If it might seem at times that England has available slots that they are struggling to fill, there seems to be no shortage of players vying for a place in the Indian side.
At the top of the order three into two won’t go for Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul. Each performed poorly in South Africa and may yet struggle in English conditions. This may well prove to be a series where the opening partnerships are a mere entrée to the main fare of the middle order. If that proves to be the case then India can enter this series with confidence that they have the players further down the menu to provide the run feast required. Cheteshwa Pujara will be hungry to improve on a modest tour in 2014 that produced just one half century whilst Ajinkya Rahane (named captain in Kohli’s absence against Afghanistan) has the memory of a century in his last Test outing at Lord’s to sustain him. The selection of Karun Nair to the squad for Afghanistan provides the chance to re-launch his career and perhaps give indigestion to those amongst the England team who witnessed his triple century against them in Chennai just eighteen months ago. It remains to be seen if Rohit Sharma’s omission against Afghanistan signals the end of the struggle to transition his majestic limited overs form to the longer format of the game. He still surely offers a tempting treat for the BCCI to slot into the squad for the threat that he could provide.
It should be a fascinating series. If India can triumph, as they seem well placed to do, it will be an important step towards shedding that reputation for poor away form. It will also enable them to venture with confidence to the final frontier of Australia at the end of the year. But that is a story for another day!
Image Credit: wiltshirespotter