It's been four years since India arrived in England with renewed hope. Four years since the alleged Pushgate drama which went on for eternity. Four years since that 103-run masterclass by Ajinkya Rahane. Four years since MS Dhoni hand-held Ishant Sharma to seven wickets. Four years since India's first victory at Lord's in 82 years. Four years, 26 spells, 69 overs, and 415 deliveries since the last smile on Pankaj Singh's face. Four years since James Anderson made Virat Kohli keep the English slip cordon constantly busy. Four years since Moeen Ali was made to look like Muttiah Muralitharan and four years since India finally provided hope before coming crashing down like a drunken party-goer getting out of a late-night taxi.
A lot has changed in the four years since India last visited England in 2014. However, as they enter the English soil again, a lot of old questions remain unanswered.
Can India finally break the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) duck? It's kind of become a default — sticky note — question on every travel to SENA countries. It's been close to nine years since they last won a Test series in one of these countries. Their last win was a 1-0 series win in New Zealand in 2009. Post that, they have lost seven and drawn one out of their eight series. At one point they lost eight matches on the trot in 2011 (0-4 in England and 0-4 in Australia) and that was somewhat India's lowest ebb overseas in that period. What hurt them the most was the nature of defeats — those were meek surrenders. Two years later, a revitalised India produced a spark, in that Johannesburg thriller but that spark soon turned into a trend which raised another crucial question, "Yes, India have started competing overseas but can they close out matches? Can they deliver the knockout punches?"
Time and again they have been in a position of ascendency and then tantalisingly squandered the advantage. It happened in South Africa earlier this year where they had the Proteas on the ropes at 142/5 in their first innings in Cape Town and then allowed them to post a competitive 286. They fought back in the second innings but were against frustrated by the tail which allowed South Africa to cross the 200-run lead and set a 208-run target. The chase wasn't improbable but the batsmen faltered and that set the tone for the Proteas.
Maintaining sustained pressure is the key against big teams but India have blinked far too often during these crucial tours. They have climbed higher but then missed a step and come crashing down. A minor slip in one session and whoosh! The Test is gone. That's what happened in Centurion in the second Test against South Africa. They had five Protea wickets down with a lead of 201 runs in the second innings and could have been in with a good chance at a venue which assisted subcontinental conditions. But Kohli went on the defensive in the post-lunch session on the fourth day that helped Proteas set a target of 287 on a ground where 251 was the highest fourth innings total. The batsmen were again found wanting and the series was gone.
It happened in 2013-14 against the same side when after setting a 458-run target they couldn't breach AB de Villiers’ and Faf du Plessis' defences on the final day, in fact, they even received a scare of the Proteas chasing down the target. It continued in Kingsmead Durban and then in New Zealand two months later and then in England, and then in Australia where they lost the series in three sessions.
Against England, this time around, they desperately need that final push and this is where Dhoni's words after the 2013-14 South Africa series should continuously ring into their ears — "If you have the upper hand, (you must) make sure you capitalise on that."
But can they maintain that sustained pressure over six weeks and five Tests? A lot depends on the fast bowlers which raises another question, can the bowlers cope up with the gruelling schedule? Can they cope up with rigours of a five-Test series? That too after being on the tour for over a month and having played five T20Is (including Ireland matches) and three ODIs?
The signs are already ominous with their vital cog Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah injured without a ball being bowled in the Test series. Last time on English soil, the Indian bowlers could sustain their intensity only for the first two Tests. Zaheer Khan was ruled out before the Test series, Ishant Sharma missed two Tests with a foot injury after his seven-wicket heroics at Lord's and Bhuvneshwar, who bowled with great heart, was just absolutely exhausted.
India conceded 1627 runs in four innings after the second Test at Lord's, an average of 406 runs per innings and 52 runs per wicket whereas England conceded 1063 runs, an average of 177 runs per innings and 17 runs per wicket. The Indian bowling had gone flatter than the SSC wicket in Colombo. And ever since that series, India have not played a five-match Test series abroad.
The current Indian bowling attack is one of the most exciting for years. They did well over three Tests in South Africa but the real test will be in a five-match series. With talk of heat waves and dry pitches dominating the news, the pacers will have their task cut out in the words of Dale Steyn, who played in England for a month before making his comeback during the Proteas’ away Sri Lanka Tests. The pacers will need to fire collectively and be ready at every opportunity because rotation will be a key factor. Hardik Pandya's support role will play a crucial part. Last time it was an inexperienced attack that visited England, but this time the bowlers have matured and there will be high expectations riding on them.
And it's not just the English top order that they will have to worry about. Another question that pops up is, can they overcome their problems with the opposition tail? England’s batting runs deep and a constant thorn in India's foreign tours has been the lower order. The England lower order (No 7 to 11) averaged 27 against India in the 2014 series which irked India, and the South African tail-enders too frustrated them at the start of the year. Opposition tail-enders have averaged 23.90 against India in the SENA countries from the 2013 SA series, only West Indian bowlers have done a poor job (30.31) against lower orders with a minimum of five Tests during this period. India have struggled to replace Anil Kumble, the tail-finisher, but someone needs to put his hand up and take up the responsibility.
For the bowlers to make a difference, they will need the strong support of the fielders too. Just ask Pankaj, who can sit down and tell you a long emotional tale of that 2014 tour. In the 2018 South Africa series, India dropped eight catches, some of them proved to be game-changers, just like the Keshav Maharaj drop (when on 0, he went on to score 35 crucial runs) in Cape Town which had a telling impact on the match. India had dropped eight catches in the 2014 England series, and in all, they have dropped 119 catches from 48 Tests since India's tour of SA in 2013 an average of 2.48 per Test.
Bowling, fielding done; are there still questions left? Yes, there are!
"I think our bowlers will do a pretty good job, (but) it will boil down to how our batsmen fare," Ravi Shastri had stressed about the importance of batting, amidst all the excitement surrounding the bowling attack, before leaving for South Africa in January this year. This feeling resonates for the current England series as well. In the country, where the ball moves around early, the top order needs to hold steady and provide a strong platform.
The Indian top order averaged just 15.50 against South Africa and just 25.70 in 2014 against England. Since 2013 December (That South Africa series) the Indian top order has the second-lowest average among the Asian teams in SENA countries — 30.46, behind Bangladesh (27.08) and overall second-lowest behind West Indies (30.19) for countries to have played a minimum of five Tests. Murali Vijay (36.93) and Cheteshwar Pujara (30.03) have done well in patches in SENA countries during this period but consistency is the need of the hour. The over-reliance on Kohli and the lower order needs to go. The pressure is already mounting on Shikhar Dhawan and Pujara. Can the competition for places bring the best out of the top order? Well, they have Anderson and Stuart Broad in their way!
It's not just the pace bowling that India will have to be vigilant against. The spinners too have had them on tenterhooks on certain occasions. In their last tour to England, the visitors propelled a part-time spinner into a match-winner as Moeen ran amock with 19 wickets. Among the Asian teams, India have lost most wickets per Test to spinners in SENA countries since December 2013 — 3.31 (53 wickets from 16 matches). Pakistan is second at 2.90, Bangladesh next at 2.50 and Sri Lanka at 1.83.
With all the talk about pitches being dry and the heat wave showing no signs of relenting, the England spinners can create an impact. They have recalled Adil Rashid and Moeen for the first Test, and with all the criticism surrounding these selections, they would be looking to make a statement.
England have been struggling for form of late but then they were scrambling four years ago too. It's a new series for India and a fresh start, the Johannesburg Test victory early this year would have instilled a lot of confidence but they desperately need to answer the old questions. Will they? It's high time they do before this question repeats itself on the next tour.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari