England left-arm spinner Jack Leach finds himself facing perhaps one of the sterner tests in his nascent international career so far in the form of bowling to a star-studded Indian batting lineup in the upcoming Test series starting Friday.
And even though the Joe Root-led and Chris Silverwood-coached English side is arriving in India on the back of a morale-boosting 2-0 Test series sweep over Sri Lanka, the idea of facing an Indian team — one that pulled off an unlikely victory Down Under not too long ago — in their own backyard is a different proposition altogether.
Leach reckons it to be a great opportunity for the visitors, quite a few of whom are playing on Indian soil for the first time, to test themselves against a formidable unit.
"It’s just exciting, isn’t it? They’re obviously a quality side who have come off the back of a quality win in Australia. I feel it’s just a great opportunity for all of us to test ourselves against what on paper’s probably the best side in the world.
"It’s my first time in India; the dream is to come to places like this and bowl spin. I just say it’s a fantastic opportunity and one I really want to enjoy," said Leach in a virtual press conference in the build-up to the first Test against India that takes place between 5-9 February at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.
England have hit the nets already since arriving in the southern Indian city of Chennai on 27 January, having undergone multiple RT-PCR tests for COVID-19 as well as quarantine in their hotel rooms, and have a precious few days to prepare themselves before the series gets underway at the MA Chidambaram Stadium — which hosts the first two Tests of the series before the action shifts to Ahmedabad's Motera.
England are the only team to have beaten India in their own backyard in the previous decade, thanks to the brilliance of the spin duo of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar along with some majestic knocks from Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook in the memorable 2012-13 tour. And while the visitors will certainly draw inspiration from that series, the pressure will certainly be on them. After the same team also lost by a 4-0 scoreline four years later which led to Cook getting axed as the Test skipper.
While pressure's something an international cricketer faces wherever he or she plays, India in India is a notch higher, reckons Leach, remembered fondly for that single in the Headingley epic during the 2019 Ashes.
"I think there’s pressure all the time when you play for England. I’d certainly be putting that pressure on myself. I think (I’d) always want to be doing well for England wherever it is in the world.
"In India, there’s a bit more pressure with what wickets could be like, but we don’t know what we’re going to come up against. India obviously are a great side and they’ve got all bases covered," added Leach, who did sound excited by the prospect of some fans being allowed inside the stadiums during the series.
The left-arm spinner is expected to be a first-choice pick in the spin department at the start of the India series after his success with the ball during the clean sweep in Sri Lanka. Leach played a key role in restricting the Lankan batsmen as he finished third in the bowler's list with 10 wickets (average: 35.50; economy: 3.20) against his name, including a five-for in the first Test, forming a successful partnership with Dom Bess in the process.
What especially stood out in his performances was that Leach was especially effective in the second essays of the two Tests, nine of the 10 wickets coming at that stage. Given how the surfaces gradually become a spinners' paradise as the match progresses in India, this could be particularly encouraging for him.
"I think a spinner taking wickets in the second innings always a confidence boost. I’m probably someone who’s never happy in a way, and there’s more improvement from me to come. I feel like the way the ball came out wasn’t exactly how I’d like it, but I have to accept I haven’t had much cricket in recent times.
"It feels good to be back playing; obviously that’s what I get paid to do, so to be playing cricket again is a really nice feeling, and to get those two games played and to win the series two-nil, obviously the boys played some good cricket.
"It was nice to be part of that and make a contribution, but I think reflecting I feel good for the cricket and the overs, but feel like I’ve got more to offer," added Leach, who is set to hit the nets along with the rest of the squad on Tuesday, 2 February after coming out of quarantine.
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) January 31, 2021
England face India in what will be a crucial Test series for the 'Three Lions', with the side currently third on the ICC World Test Championship points table and still in contention for a slot in the final along with teams such as New Zealand, India and Australia. The summit clash is scheduled to take place at the iconic Lord's Cricket Ground in June.
As for Joe Root, he has been successful against Virat Kohli's India in his run as England Test captain, having masterminded a 4-1 series win against the opposition at home during the summer of 2018.
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Having registered 1 and 0 in the series-opener against England, Rahane found form with a 67-run knock, while Rohit shone the brightest among Indians with an effort of 161, which included some mesmerising strokeplay.
Ajinkya Rahane looked equally attractive during his knock of 67 off 149 balls and the two Mumbaikars added 162 runs for the fourth wicket, making it worth the effort for the 15,000 who flocked the Chepauk as Indian cricket welcomed its fans back in the stadium amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
An official statement from the BCCI said Bumrah had asked "to be released from India’s squad ahead of the fourth Test owing to personal reasons.