Moeen Ali coming in to bat at number five? That is a frightening prospect for those hoping to see a closely-contested five-Test series play out between India and England over the next two months. No wonder that even before a ball has been bowled, there are murmurs of a potential repeat of the great English whitewash of 1993.
When India’s remarkably long home season was first announced, it was the England series that was looked forward to the most. The current visitors were not only seen as the toughest of the four visiting teams—New Zealand, Australia and Bangladesh being the other three—the home team also had an eye on avenging the series defeats in India in 2012 and in England in 2014.
As things stand, India are overwhelming favourites to complete their mission. When you take a cursory look at a relatively thin English squad, while considering the fact that India has looked invincible at home of late (six wins in the last seven series), it isn’t difficult to see why.
England’s spin department is weakened and unsettled. Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty, Zafar Ansari and Ali do not possess the skill and threat of either Graeme Swann or Monty Panesar, the duo that spun England to victory four years ago by taking a combined 37 wickets. Lead seamer James Anderson, returning from injury,will miss at least the first Test and likely the second too, if not more. He had grabbed 12 wickets in 2012; a number three times more than any other pace bowler in the series.
However, let’s assume that the Indian pitches – which offer more spin now than those seen four years ago – will assist the English spinners. That Rashid will zip a fair few unplayable deliveries, like he did briefly in Sharjah against Pakistan, and that Ali will recreate some of the magic that bamboozled the Indian batsmen in 2014.
Until the final Test against New Zealand in Indore recently, India hadn’t run away with the bat in any of the home Tests in the previous 12 months — which saw a total of seven Tests against the Kiwis and the South Africans. This suggests there’s hope for England if the batting can get its act together, admittedly a tall task against the most fearsome spin bowling in the world.
England’s batting line-up, though, is low on natural grafters, and that too is a major concern alongside the ‘spin gap’. A middle order of Ali at five, Ben Stokes at six and Johnny Bairstow at seven is certainly a formidable one in ODIs but far from a safe house in Tests, as was evident in the landmark Test defeat to Bangladesh in Dhaka.
All three of them are naturally aggressive players. Ali has opened for England in the past and even batted all the way down at nine, which was once symbolic of the team’s batting depth — what does it say about the depth now? Bairstow has the ability to hang around, but batting with the tail will be a difficult trade-off in surviving and going for runs.
Stokes, meanwhile, is a world-class all-rounder but the Indian sojourn will be a major Test of his temperament. Three of Stokes’ top ten scores in Test cricket were achieved at a strike rate of over 100, while nine of them were made at over 60. He will have to bat out of his skin, and ride his luck too, to produce such figures in India.
If you consider the top ten individual scores made by visiting batsmen in the previous two Test series in India, you would see that only three of them for South Africa—two of which were freakishly good innings by the outstanding AB de Villiers — were made at a strike rate of over 50, whereas only three for New Zealand were made at over 60. All-out attack isn’t a viable option against spin in India; cautious aggression though might still be worth a punt.
In 2012, England had skipper Alastair Cook — top run-getter in the series — and his opening partner Nick Compton, provide the team with steady starts. Both of them were solid in defence, compact in technique and positively shot-shy. Same could be said for Jonathan Trott, who followed in at number three with game-changing contributions, and Ian Bell at number five.
An aggressive Kevin Pietersen, sandwiched at four, would frequently capitalise on the start given by the top three and take the game away from India, while wicketkeeper Matt Prior would possess the ability to grind out scores when required. It was quite a balanced line-up; one which dug in deep after being skittled out for 191 in the tour’s first innings and forced to follow on.
Does the current one hold the ability to do the same? At least Cook is still present at the top, albeit not quite the prolific run-getter who piled on 562 runs at 80.28 over four Tests in 2012. His 22-year-old partner Ben Duckett made his debut in Bangladesh last month, managing only one fifty-plus score in four innings—but at least showed some promise in the final knock.
Joe Root is, well, Joe Root, coming in at three. But like Kane Williamson and AB de Villiers before him, too much pressure to hold the innings together doesn’t bode too well on his form. This, especially when you consider that Gary Ballance, in at four, hasn’t hit double digits in five attempts and has scored one half-century in his previous 13 innings. He’s probably lucky that his next-in-line, Haseeb Hameed, is a 19-year-old opener with no International experience.
A feeble and fragile English batting lacks individuals who could truly batten down the hatches when required—which could, in turn, make the gap in quality of spinners a merely academic one.
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