India vs England: Motera pitch, English spin test in focus again as hosts look to seal WTC final berth

One hundred and twelve all out. 81 all out (their lowest ever total against India). Bamboozled by spinners, again. Batting techniques chastised, again. Rotation policy questioned, again. From leading 1-0 to trailing 1-2. Missing a World Test Championship berth.

The last week has been the sort of bad dream England would never want to experience again. A defeat inside two days could have a significant impact on the psyche, especially when you are playing in an intimidating environment. After the highs of the first Test, England have come crashing down like a skydiver suffering a parachute failure. It was indeed a week of hurt.

However, not many teams experience even those small highs that England have while touring India. And they have a chance to draw the series, which will still be a fantastic achievement. What's crucial now is that they just need to hit the refresh button and forget about the past as they head into the final Test.

"A week like this doesn't define us as a team," captain Joe Root said after the third Test defeat. "We know what we're capable of doing and we'll come back and use the hurt of this week as motivation going into that last game."

The hurt was palpable in Root's words but those were strong ones too and the entire team will look to take motivation from the captain's words as they enter the Motera cauldron again.

As much as for England's confidence, the final Test will be crucial for India as well. A World Test Championship final berth is at stake and India need at least a draw to meet New Zealand at Lord's in June. If they lose this Test, Australia will make it to the WTC final.

Virat Kohli's boys have again showcased their mental strength by coming back and leading the series after being 0-1 down. They have thoroughly outclassed England in the last two Tests and these are ominous signs. Once they get into that flow, India can be ruthless and unstoppable. A win in the third Test meant that they will again go undefeated in a series at home. The last time they lost a series they hosted was way back in 2012 and it was England that halted their eight-year undefeated home run to win the four-Test series 2-1 under Alastair Cook's captaincy.

From being outclassed in the First Test to taking a dominant position — while everything has unravelled so quickly in the series, including the bizarre Third Test — the shortest completed match since 1935 and seventh-shortest overall - the pitch and the ball have been the centre of microscopic focus.

The first Test produced a wicket which was flat and slow on the first two days before starting to take turn on the third and Kohli and Co wasn't happy with the quality of the SG ball which got ‘destroyed’ inside 60 overs. The second Test produced a turner where the ball started spinning from Day 1 with extra bounce and finished inside four days.

The third Test produced variable spin and the extra lacquer on the pink ball made it skid off the surface. The track at Narendra Modi Stadium divided opinions while some former England and India players criticised the pitch feeling the balance between the bat and ball was skewed, some criticised the batting techniques and shot selections. Kohli and Rohit Sharma found it a good surface to bat on. R Ashwin was annoyed with all the pitch talk, hitting back at pitch critics asking who defines what a good surface is.

England though haven’t complained about the pitches but the general narrative has been that the pitches have been challenging and they need to find a way to counter the spin factor.

It seems though that the pitch talk won't die soon. And as we enter Motera for the fourth Test, the spotlight will be on the 22 yards, again. The ball will change and so will the timings. Going by the words of England wicket-keeper batsman Ben Foakes, it seems like a track similar to the third Test is on the cards.

"I was at training today, and from the look of it, I think it'll be pretty similar," Foakes said after a practice session, five days ahead of the Test. "I don't think we're concerned. We know what we're going to get and I guess they're pushing their conditions to the extremities. We know it's going to spin considerably from ball one so it's about trying to find a way to play well in those conditions and understand they're going to be challenging."

Ajinkya Rahane too reckoned that it will be a turning track similar to the second and third Tests.

It is however important for both teams to shake their visions a little bit and focus on other aspects as well. The priority would be to iron out the flaws which surfaced in the third Test. Kohli described batting from both sides as below-par in the third Test as the batsmen kept missing the straight ones and while India will look to improve their batting performance on turners, England batsmen will look to correct their decision making by using their feet more - rather than going one-dimensional with the sweep shot - and trust their defences more. And more importantly, as Root said ahead of the Test, the players shouldn't be scared of the conditions.

Kohli himself has had an indifferent series so far which includes two classy half-centuries on difficult surfaces. He averages 34.40 and will want to break a century drought that has uncharacteristically lasted for 13 innings now. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane who have averaged 23.20 and 17 respectively will be looking to hit some form. Pujara, especially, would be looking to break the home century duck having last scored a ton way back in November 2017.

After scoring 756 runs in two innings in the first Test, England have scored just 491 runs from four innings in the last two. No batsman has averaged over 30 apart from Root who averages 55.50. The overreliance on Root needs to go. The way Zack Crawley batted in the first innings in the last Test would have inspired some confidence in the England camp but the rest need to step up.

There is a selection dilemma also to deal with for England. They erred by playing three pacers and just one spinner in the third Test going by conditions and reading the pitch wrong. They will desperately need to get this one right. With a lack of quality spin resources at disposal, will England go back to Dom Bess in place of one of James Anderson/Stuart Broad/Jofra Archer, or strengthen their batting by bringing back Dan Lawrence? There is also a probability that one of the other two pacers might be rested as a part of rotation policy and either Mark Wood or Olly Stone might be included in the team.

India will be forced into one change as pacer Jasprit Bumrah will miss the Test due to personal reasons. Which means either Umesh Yadav or Mohammed Siraj will make it to the playing eleven. Umesh Yadav's terrific home record makes him the prime candidate. Washington Sundar might retain his place given that he bolsters the lower order batting as well which means Kuldeep Yadav will miss out again. India might not look to tinker too much with the winning combination.

"It’s really important we don't just stand still now and be happy with what we've achieved, that we try and go one more and find ways of being better in these conditions," Root said after the first Test win.

Well, leave alone moving forward or standing still, England have gone two steps backward. But as Root said, two losses don't make them a bad team overnight. And prior to that, they had won six Tests on the trot in Asia. If they manage to pull off a win to draw the series, it will still be a fantastic achievement, something which no team has managed to achieve in the last 12 bilateral Test series in India.

Will India spin their way to the WTC final? Or will England turnaround their fortunes against spin?

It seems a gargantuan task for England to take those two steps forward, but not impossible.

Updated Date: March 03, 2021 18:43:56 IST

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