India vs England in Tests: At stake, a ticket to Lord’s

A 2-0 win for India will guarantee it a place in the final of the ICC World Test Championship. If England wins a single Test, India will have to prevail 3-1. And if England triumphs 3-0, it’s curtains for India.

The opening match of the four-Test series between India and England will begin in Chennai from February 5.   -  K. Pichumani

The crowds in India have always been among the factors that make the country such a formidable force on home soil. As the ball grips, turns and bounces, the fans roar even as the bowlers and the ring of close-in catchers turn towards the umpire with full-throated appeals. It’s a spectacle like none other, the visiting batsmen having to not just cope with the stress of playing in challenging conditions, but also dealing with the pressure from the spectators. The arena turns into a cauldron, and even the umpires struggle, unable to pick amid all the noise the delicate sound of the ball nicking the bat.

Playing before such enthusiastic crowds that get solidly behind the home team — Test cricket still draws sizeable audiences in its traditional centres — is among the hurdles that visiting teams have to surmount to conquer India in India.

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Traditionally, a crowd at any international match in India is a given. But in these times of Covid-19, that is no longer a guarantee. The coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered the lives of the players, the administrators, the spectators and the media. This is a period of quarantines and bio-bubbles, with the players locked up in their hotel rooms when not practising or playing, and biosecure matches, where nearly the entire revenue comes from the official broadcaster.

The opening match of the four-Test series between India and England is scheduled to be held in Chennai from February 5, and the state government, on January 31, allowed as much as 50 percent of stadiums to be occupied for sporting events. But the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association’s (TNCA) move to issue two tickets each to 180 affiliated clubs — for a total of 360 spectators in the 38,000-capacity M. A. Chidambaram Stadium — did not go down well with the English board. The Test, now, will be played behind closed doors.

The England selectors have come in for criticism for their policy of resting and rotating players because of the mental strains of staying in a bio-bubble. For instance, influential all-rounder Ben Stokes and the red-hot Jofra Archer were rested for the Sri Lanka tour.   -  Getty Images

 

For the second Test, which begins on February 13, the TNCA and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) will allow 50 percent of the stands full. The next two games in Ahmedabad — the third will be a day/night affair — are expected to be played in front of spectators.

What was almost an Indian B side overcame Australia in the deciding game of the Border-Gavaskar Series at the Gabba to register an astonishing 2-1 Test series triumph after the shocking “Winter of 36” opening match in Adelaide. On view was loads of character as Cheteshwar Pujara absorbed blow after blow on a surface that had a prominent crack, but he refused to give in — underling the spirit and resilience of the Indian squad. After skipper Virat Kohli returned home on paternity leave, Ajinkya Rahane led a team of believers who knew the meaning of neither fear not defeat.

But against England, there is a lot of stake. A 2-0 win for India will guarantee it a place in the final of the ICC World Test Championship. If England wins a single Test, India will have to prevail 3-1. And if England triumphs 3-0, it’s curtains for India.

The England team has arrived in India after overcoming Sri Lanka 2-0, with both Test victories achieved on the spinner-friendly tracks in Galle.

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Sri Lanka, showing signs of resurgence as a new crop of players settles in around established names such as Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal, is never easy to defeat at home. But with captain Joe Root building huge monuments — innings of 226 and 186 — close to the historic and imposing Galle Fort, England had the runs in the bag. Its spinners, offie Dom Bess and left-armer Jack Leach, struck telling blows, combining well and creating pressure. Old warhorse James Anderson, too, struck with his two-way swing as he harnessed the new ball and the old.

When Sri Lanka managed enough runs to force an England chase in the second Test, the gifted Jos Buttler made short work of the 164-run target with a blaze of strokes while opener Dom Sibley held up his end with a fighting unbeaten fifty.

All these men will have crucial roles to play in the Test series against India, even if Buttler is available only for the first Test, after which he will fly back to England and return only for the white-ball series.

The England selectors have come in for criticism from former cricketers such as Michael Vaughan and David Lloyd for their policy of resting and rotating players because of the mental strains of staying in a bio-bubble. For instance, influential all-rounder Ben Stokes and the red-hot Jofra Archer were rested for the Sri Lanka tour. And while Jonny Bairstow, among the finest English players of spin, played his role in Sri Lanka, he won’t be available for the first two Tests in India.

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But then, these are strange times we live in. The pandemic has changed the way we approach a series, even if it is as important a one as India vs England.

With the cricketers undergoing Covid tests every three days, India has announced a massive 18-member squad for the first two Tests, apart from four reserve players. But there are question marks over fitness. Has Jasprit Bumrah recovered completely? And has R. Ashwin completely gotten rid of his back problem? Key all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja is already out of the first two Tests with a broken thumb.

There are indications that the surface for the first Test in Chennai will not be a rank turner. There is a healthy coating of grass on the pitch, and all of it might not be removed considering India prides itself on its lively pace attack. The feats of Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur, who exploited the track and the crack at the Gabba better than their more-illustrious Australian counterparts, is fresh in memory. Still, this is India, and the ball should start turning from day three.

There are question marks over the fitness of Indian players named in the squad. For example, has Jasprit Bumrah (left) recovered completely? And has R. Ashwin completely gotten rid of his back problem?   -  Getty Images

 

Skipper Kohli’s return will, of course, strengthen India’s batting, but the balance of the side could depend on whether Hardik Pandya has recovered enough to bowl around 10 overs a day at good pace. If he rediscovers his mojo with the ball, then India can go with three spinners — two of them being all-rounders in Ashwin and Washington Sundar, along with Chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav.

That would create space for India to play Wriddhiman Saha as a specialist wicketkeeper in the demanding Indian conditions with the dynamic Rishabh Pant keeping his place in the side as a pure batsman. Sundar made a lasting impression in Australia with both bat and ball — the fearless left-hander is such as lovely timer of the ball and sends down his off-spinners with control. India would do well to persist with him.

England has meat in its middle order, with Root and Stokes being the crucial men. The former has the technique, and the indomitable Stokes is someone who can impose his will on the game.

Stokes, with his reverse swing and cutters, can be handy with the ball, too. Overall, England has pace firepower with the great pair of Anderson and Stuart Broad still around, and Archer and Olly Stone being men with genuine pace.

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In addition to Bess and Leach in the spin department, England has off-spinning all-rounder Moeen Ali who could add experience and depth to the lineup.

Much for England will depend on the starts Rory Burns and Sibley can provide, particularly since the side will be eyeing big first-innings totals. In the middle order, Dan Lawrence is someone with potential.

The third Test, in Ahmedabad, could prove interesting with the latter half of they day being played under the lights. The pink ball will surely swing, and the spinners could find themselves marginalised because of the lack of sunlight and the dew factor.

The first Test in Chennai will be Root’s 100th. Sadly, near empty stands will greet the England captain in his landmark match.