When the first ball is bowled on Thursday morning at the Rose Bowl, it will only be the third time a Test has been staged here in Southampton. The previous two instances are Sri Lanka (2011) and India (2014). While there have been 21 other international matches here (all white-ball cricket across both ODIs and T20Is), it is surprising to note that other frequent touring teams that indulge more than three Tests in England – Australia and South Africa – have never played Test cricket here.
India have played in Southampton on two other occasions here – ODIs in 2007 and 2011 – and lost both. In summation then, England have beaten India on all three occasions – across formats – whenever the two sides have played at this ground. Do these statistics explain this weird anomaly as to why India are the only side to visit here often, despite a multi-million pound refurbishment of the stadium?
Back in 2014, when India last visited here, half the stadium was still under construction. The Hilton hotel – encompassing the media enclosure – was bare bones at that time, in sharp contrast to the impressive facility today. Word back then was that Rose Bowl hosted India for the sharp cash injection it brought into the ground’s expansion plans. Revisiting the place after four summers then, that duly paid out a handsome return, considering this is a quality venue for cricket and particularly limited-overs’ formats.
And now, it is the venue’s turn to do India a favour. Virat Kohli’s team arrives here hoping for an encore of their Nottingham performance, and they will want conditions as well as weather to be in their corner. Yes, there is a green-top wicket on offer and the conditions will be cold through this weekend. Given how things have shaped up in the build-up to this fourth Test then, there is reason to be confident.
It reflected on Kohli’s demeanour as his team prepared on pre-match day. Through the build-up, all talk about Indian batsmen’s fallibility against the moving ball has stopped. It is surprising in a way, because they (barring Kohli) only did well in one out of three Tests in this series so far. Is that enough to form a judgment, particularly one that sees them replicating their eagerness to watch the ball and play as late as possible?
Perhaps, it is also to do with the distraction India’s bowling attack has caused. Not only on this English tour, but also earlier in the year whilst touring South Africa, the qualities of this pace attack were talked up time and again. Only twice in six Tests though, did they come through and win India the match – Johannesburg and Nottingham.
While the former was a freak game, played on an exceptionally green and deceptive pitch, the differentiation at Trent Bridge from the other four Tests in this consideration was the number of runs Indian batsmen scored. From Cape Town to Centurion, or Birmingham to Lord’s, they neither had a 300-plus score to bowl at in the first innings, nor a 500-plus target to defend in the second.
“Even if you score 800 or 1000 runs in Test matches, but you don’t take wickets, victory won’t come. In First-Class cricket, first innings lead concept is there but in Test cricket it’s not there. If you take 20 wickets, you will get a win or at least a draw. Instead of focussing on the batsmen, we’ve been focussing on the bowlers on how to take 20 wickets. That’s why we’ve playing with five bowlers for a long time now,” said Kohli in the pre-match conference on Wednesday.
It makes for some wonderment if India will name an unchanged eleven for the first time in 46 Tests. It also begs the question – who won the Nottingham Test, Indian batsmen or bowlers?
Is this weeklong praise showered on this bowling attack is in fact a smokescreen to take attention off the improvements made by the batting line-up in turn? Let it be said there that given their exploits since 2014, it is expected off this pace attack to deliver 20 wickets in overseas Tests, as the captain had underlined.
Victory at Trent Bridge thus only helped set a narrative that celebrates achievements of this attack, but at the same time, it also heaps pressure on Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya to replicate their success in Southampton. The added advantage herein is that they understand the implications of their heightened ability in these pace-friendly conditions, which only further boosts an in-your-face captain like Kohli.
“Seamers in our side have gained good experience over the last 3-4 years. They’ve been bowling well as a unit, which is the most exciting thing for me as a captain and for the whole team. Be it a spell or bowling in a partnership, we feel happy when we are the ground, at slips or even outside. It gives us happiness when we see our bowlers rushing the opposite batsmen,” the Indian captain said.
This second bit helps push that aforementioned narrative further, only now we are entering a seemingly uncomfortable territory for the hosts. Sample this: Keaton Jennings has scored 94 runs in five innings this series. His partner, the more illustrious Alastair Cook has 80 runs.
Compared to Kohli’s massive 440 runs in three Tests, Joe Root has mere 142 runs. England’s highest run-scorer in this series is Jonny Bairstow, with 206 runs, but he will bat in this fourth Test with a fractured left middle finger. Further, this out-of-form and arguably out-of-sorts top-four will face a confident and raring-to-go Indian attack on a green top at the Rose Bowl.
As such, you can just see why England have made the changes they have to in their playing eleven. The flashy Olliver Pope is dropped after two Tests, and Moeen Ali – on the back of his double hundred in County cricket last week – will bat at number seven, along with all-rounder Sam Curran at number eight.
In short, after the dual collapse at Trent Bridge, England have hedged their batting line-up deep. Is it for fear of what the Indian pacers can do, or the fear of defeat altogether? Now, that is a question for Day 5.