“England haven’t got world class spinners”, admitted Alastair Cook, after his side somehow lost 10 wickets in a single session to surrender against Bangladesh, who were in the mood to make history. It was telling that even after what was one of England’s worst days ever with the bat, the conversation centered on spin bowling.
It happens only in India. Or rather, just before India.
Coming to India without quality spinners is like going to the beach without your swimsuit: you can still have a dip in the clothes you brought, but you’re likely to have a soggy, shivering, and messy journey back home. While Moeen Ali and Co showed plenty of ability to bowl wicket-taking balls, it is their ability, or the lack of it, to sustain pressure that let them down in Bangladesh. (And probably the fact that they treated the second Test like a warm up match for the main attraction.)
Be that as it may, the main attraction is here, for both teams. This tour is the centerpiece of the season for both the visitors and the hosts. After whetting the appetite of the Indian public with a whitewash of New Zealand, the stage has been set for a five match marathon of a Test series. Outside of the Ashes, this is the only bilateral five match series since 2014 (that was between these two countries as well). This fact bears testament to two realities; one reassuring , the other less so. First, Test cricket is far from dead. And second, both boards are milking the cow before any scrapping of the ‘Big 3’ revenue sharing model becomes a reality.
But on the field, there is much to look forward to. You can’t pick a winner of a 42km race in the first 10 minutes. A five match series means that there will be plenty of time to make amends for the follies of a single session. “You have an opportunity to come back into the series when you are playing five matches,” said Indian vice captain Ajinkya Rahane. India will be disappointed if they allow England too many footholds in this series though, given how heavily the odds are in favour of the hosts. With captain Virat Kohli’s ‘all-hands-on-deck-full-steam-ahead’ approach, he will want nothing less than domination of the visitors.
With that in mind, India are packing more ammo in the bowling department than Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. Having included Jayant Yadav, and the healthy-again Ishant Sharma, the bowling department is at full strength, despite Bhuvaneshwar Kumar’s absence. With Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya having been very impressive with the white ball in the ODI series against New Zealand, there is intense competition for the fast bowling slots. Despite all the talk of spin, reverse swing will be a crucial factor in this series, more so for England.
“We know we have our strength in seam bowling and reverse-swing”, said Cook in Bangladesh. “We take more wickets with that than with our spinners.”
Three of India’s key players go into this series hungry. Ravichandran Ashwin, the bête noire of visiting teams, was rested for the ODIs against New Zealand, along with Ravindra Jadeja. Together, the two have taken a whopping 66 percent of the wickets to fall in India’s home Tests, starting with the clean sweep of Australia in 2012-13. Both will return to international cricket with fresh fingers and stomachs full of home-cooked food, but appetites for wickets undiminished.
Ashwin in particular will relish the fact that England’s squad comprises seven left-handers, five of whom are likely to bat in the top order. This may also mean that Jayant Yadav could get a game if the pitch demands three spinners. Although Amit Mishra’s form, experience, and proficiency in turning the ball both ways will most likely put him ahead. Jadeja meanwhile, is likely to play his first Test at home.
Finally, to captain Kohli. Kohli averaged 13.40 in his last Test series against England, when the English seamers cleverly and expertly pried open the single chink in Kohli’s armour. His series average for that tour is the worst in his career, lower even than his debut series against the West Indies or his singular outing against Bangladesh. It is a blip in his career that is glaringly and obviously wrong, like finding the number two in a page of binary code. In all probability, those numbers will be silent challenge to England’s bowlers (there may be a few words as well, mind you), led by Stuart Broad, who is set to play his 100th Test in Rajkot.
The other talking point for this series takes us away from the dressing rooms, and into the third umpire’s cabin. India’s slight shift in stance towards the Decision Review System could have a Butterfly Effect-like impact on next ten years. "I think the future will pretty much depend on the next six months and what the BCCI decide to do with DRS," said Warren Brennan, the inventor of Hot Spot, in this excellent piece on the future of Test cricket. No matter the result of this series, the ICC, and the cricket world, will be examining quite another scoreline come December.
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