The upcoming India-England Test series, which begins from 5 February in Chennai, has many narratives running around it: race for the World Test Championship final at Lord's; Virat Kohli's comeback; and an opportunity for the hosts to extend their unbeaten home record. But nothing comes closer to the emotional value which international cricket's return to Indian soil brings.
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic which dismantled the old normal for the 'new normal', India would be hosting an international team in their own backyard. After beating Australia Down Under, it's the perfect gift Team India could have given to their fans.
While supporters will not be allowed inside the stadiums for the first Test, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association has already announced that fans — up to fifty percent of the stadium capacity — would be permitted to attend the second Test which would also be played at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, from 13 February.
Hosts eye WTC final at Lord's
Another gift that team India could give to their fans, over the course of the series, is to qualify for the World Test Championship final which will be held at Lord's in June. With New Zealand booking their place in the summit clash, India are involved in a three-way race with immediate opponents England and Australia who still hold an outside chance.
All Kohli and his men need to qualify is to win two out of four matches besides not losing the upcoming series. And they seem primed to achieve that. Yes, England were the last team to beat India in India, but that occurred long back (in 2012).
The current England batting, especially in the absence of Jonny Bairstow who will be missing the first two Tests, looks thin on the skill required to tackle spin. That's something Alastair Cook and the company did very well in 2012.
Similarly, English spinners — Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar — ruled the roost in 2012 against their Indian counterparts who were either too inexperienced or on their last legs. The current troika of Dom Bess, Jack Leach, and Moeen Ali don't evoke the same confidence.
Selection headache for hosts
Another factor that makes India heavy favourites going into the Test series is their rich resource of talents. The tour Down Under was the perfect exhibition of India's strong bench strength. And even as India struggled there to field their best players due to injuries, they would have more options in Chennai and Ahmedabad and that would certainly lead to some headaches for the management.
The easy job is to pick the top five and most of us would hit the bullseye in predicting that. Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, and Ajinkya Rahane should be a certainty. Also, they have regularly opted to play five bowlers (including all-rounders) at home and away recently and that means the wicket-keeper could bat at No 6.
The question is which one? At home, Wridhiman Saha has been the preferred option so far, but there's a good chance Rishabh Pant would be anointed as the undisputed gloveman in the upcoming series for his heroics in Australia and it's about time he is.
Hardik Pandya would only come out of quarantine on Wednesday and is set to miss the first Test. He may come back in the following matches but a lot will depend on his ability to bowl a few overs. In such a scenario, Axar Patel looks destined to slot straight into the side as a like-for-like replacement for Ravindra Jadeja. English batsmen struggled against the left-armer Lasith Embuldeniya in Sri Lanka and Axar can be India's Embuldeniya.
Ravichandran Ashwin is inevitable and Washington Sundar could be the casualty in this case due to his likeness to Ashwin. It would be a mouth-watering prospect to have Kuldeep Yadav in the squad but if reports of Chennai's pitch having grass is true then India could play three pacers.
Jasprit Bumrah would finally get the chance to make his home Test debut. Ishant Sharma could make a return with Mohammed Siraj completing the lineup. If it's only two pacers, Siraj could miss out as Ishant is the incumbent.
Who would England pick?
England also have big players like Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer joining the squad. Returning Rory Burns is expected to be the opener alongside Dom Sibley. Root could bat at No 3 in Bairstow's absence or it could be Zak Crawley. This is where England could have some sleepless nights. You don't want your best batsman to play out of position and to be exposed early on but you also don't want to lose too many wickets upfront.
Stokes, Jos Buttler, and Chris Woakes should ideally take No 5, 6, and 7 spots respectively. One can expect the visitors to pull a surprise and drop Leach in favour of playing Ali and Bess together. Both are handy batsmen and that could work in their favour. To play veterans James Anderson and Stuart Broad together is tempting and England could take the bait, at least in the first Test.
Reliance on Root
During the 2012 Test series triumph skipper, Cook amassed 562 runs in four matches. The next best English batsman Kevin Pietersen was 224 runs away from Cook's tally.
This time around England would need their current captain Root to have a similar time in order to compete toe-to-toe with India. Root has a good record in India (584 runs from six Tests at an average of 53.09) and recently struck 426 runs in just two matches in Sri Lanka. He's an excellent player of spin with a wide range of shots in his repertoire. In a team sport like cricket, one can't just rely very heavily on a single player but Root's fortune with the bat could have a big say in England's fate.
Kohli vs Anderson
There are many subplots in the bigger story of India and England renewing their rivalry and all eyes would be on the contest between Kohli and his one-time arch-nemesis, Anderson.
In 2014, Kohli got out four times to Anderson in Tests but the pacer hasn't had any luck since then. Anderson's success is often considered a product of helpful conditions but Test cricket's best pacer, in terms of wickets, cleared those doubts recently when he returned figures of six for 40 in the first inning of the second Test against Sri Lanka at Galle.
The famed rivalry has just a few more chapters left and the anticipation of what the next edition of their clash would bring is as good a subplot as you could get.
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