For all its success at home, India still wins precious few Test matches overseas against tough opposition. India is yet to win a Test series in Australia or South Africa; it has won two in New Zealand and three in England in all its history. India’s win-loss ratio in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa is 0.25, which means that for every Test India wins in these nations, it loses four.
It is unfair to single India out, for almost all teams are poor travellers these days; only South Africa stands apart. Among sides touring Australia, England, India, New Zealand and South Africa in the last 10 years (since July 2008), the Proteas have the best win-loss record (13-10), having triumphed in seven series. India, in contrast, has won four Tests and lost 18, and has only one series win (New Zealand, 2009) to its name.
This is not to suggest that the series wins in Sri Lanka and the West Indies under Virat Kohli are insignificant, but the conditions and the opposition were never both challenging at the same time. And it is against the backdrop of this poor record that India prepares for a five-match Test series in England.
The last time India was here, in 2014, there was a historic victory at Lord’s to celebrate — the national team’s second-ever at the venue. But having taken a 1-0 lead in the series, the touring side lost its way, suffering defeat in the next three Tests, when it scored more than 200 only once in six innings. India’s batsmen scored only two hundreds across the five Tests — M. Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane the century-makers — as James Anderson (25 wickets) and Stuart Broad (19) flourished in helpful conditions.
Kohli managed only 134 runs in 10 innings, with Ravindra Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar Kumar facing more deliveries than him.
It is a memory Kohli and India will be keen to erase. There were mitigating circumstances, to be fair. That was a relatively inexperienced team, with only Gautam Gambhir, M. S. Dhoni and Ishant Sharma having played Test cricket in England before. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who was excellent, and Sharma had little support and were the only two Indian bowlers to average under 30. R. Ashwin had a tough time while Varun Aaron, Mohammed Shami and Pankaj Singh all proved unreliable.
This time around, at least 10 members from India’s squad of 18 have played a Test in England before. It should help. Kohli is desperate to improve his record in England, and he had intended to turn out for Surrey in the county championship till a neck injury scuppered those plans. Kohli is at the peak of his powers as a batsman, but he understands that another poor series in England will see him judged unfavourably. Batsmen who score ‘difficult’ runs always have an elevated status; Kohli, for all his staggering ODI feats, has a gap in his CV to fill.
This summer has been one of the hottest and driest on record in the UK, with pitches up and down the land parched. It should favour India, even if conditions can change quickly. The selectors have chosen Kuldeep Yadav, who tied England in knots in the limited-overs matches; he may not carry the same threat when batsmen are not under pressure to score runs, but the wrist-spinner will be a handful nonetheless.
India has named Jasprit Bumrah in the squad, but the Gujarat bowler is yet to recover from a thumb injury and will not be available for selection for the first Test. Bhuvneshwar, a stand-out performer (with the bat, too) on the 2014 tour, is not among the 18 named for the first three Tests, having aggravated a lower-back condition, but he could be drafted in if he recovers.
Kohli will now have to ponder over his XI. In South Africa, his solution to the four-bowler/five-bowler quandary was to select four bowlers and an all-rounder in Hardik Pandya. The Baroda cricketer sparkled in the first Test in Cape Town with a 95-ball 93 in the first innings, but he did little of note thereafter. He managed only 26 more runs in the rest of the series, and finished with three wickets at an average of 54. An all-rounder is expected to merit selection for his batting or bowling skills alone, and Pandya still has a long way to go in that regard.
Kohli has great faith in Pandya, but the former’s patience could run out at some stage. Ahead of the first Test at Edgbaston, the captain will also have to consider how many spinners — and which of them — he can field. As things stand, Shami and Sharma, who took 15 wickets in four games for Sussex in Division Two of the county championship earlier this year, look like being India’s new-ball pair.
In South Africa, India was perhaps guilty of not having given itself enough time to acclimatise, although Kohli disagreed after the second Test at Centurion. He did not think it made a difference to his team’s performance. There is perhaps something in that argument for, in 2014, India played two three-day games in England before the Test series and still lost. This time, India will have been in the UK for a month — having played three ODIs and three T20s — when the first Test begins.
It remains to be seen how much of a difference, if any, that makes.
Kohli also bristled when it was put to him that his team selection in South Africa had not been ideal. KL Rahul was benched for the first Test, Rahane — arguably India’s best batsman in tough conditions — sat out the first two, while Bhuvneshwar — by a distance India’s best bowler in the opening Test at Newlands — was dropped for the second because the management believed the pitch would not favour him. Having stated that, Rohit Sharma was picked ahead of Rahane on form, and Kohli went ahead and dropped the in-form Bhuvneshwar, contradicting himself in the process. The thinking behind selection seemed muddled, even if the captain found such an opinion outrageous.
England, under Root, has its own concerns. The home side has lost 14 of its last 24 Tests, winning only seven. James Anderson is 35 years old and Stuart Broad 32, and both are returning from injury. Their age did not seem to trouble them during England’s last Test — against Pakistan in Leeds — but this is a five-Test series squeezed into 42 days; the strain will tell at some point. England’s batting line-up is far from settled, with Alastair Cook still looking for a stable opening partner. Mark Stoneman did not meet expectations, with England forced to recall Keaton Jennings for the second Test against Pakistan.
A revamped selection panel recalled Jos Buttler purely as a batsman, while handing the spin-bowling all-rounder Dominic Bess his debut and dropping James Vince. The pitches could be dry and England may be in a state of flux, but India can take nothing for granted.
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