When England arrived in India, having fared miserably in the last Test in Bangladesh, not even the most ardent English fan would have given Alastair Cook's team a chance. A team that capitulated against Shakib al-Hasan and Mehedi Hasan Miraz would surely be devoured by Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on the Indian 'dustbowls', one felt. The verdict was, it will be 5-0 or at least 4-0 for India. Any other scoreline would have been an achievement for the visitors.
Cook's boys threw caution to the winds in the first Test at Rajkot. They amassed a massive 537 in their first innings and had India on the mat on the last day before Virat Kohli, with assistance from Jadeja, saved India the blushes.
India needed that shake up and an early scare. They took their game to a different level altogether thereafter, while England's performance just plummeted; and now, going into the fifth and final Test of the series, England find themselves in a hopeless position, 0-3 down, with the series lost and nothing much to achieve except perhaps pride.
However, if that pride is actually salvaged, it would be nothing short of a miracle, Mainly because of two reasons: first, Chennai, the venue for the final Test, has been lashed by Cyclone Vardah a few days back. Cyclone or no cyclone, it usually rains in Chennai during this part of the year. So the chances are that we may have a total or partial wash out. Second, even if the rain stays away, the Indian juggernaut may just be too strong for England to stop. This team under Kohli are a relentless lot and they will keep coming at the visitors.
To make it worse for England, they don't have a spinner who can take full advantage of the Indian conditions. Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali may have decent abilities, but they are not even close to the level of Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann, leave alone Ashwin and Jadeja.
It was duo of Panesar and Swann who had helped England stage a brilliant come-from-behind series win the last time they toured India four years ago. But now even Cook, the captain of that victorious side, has conceded the 'limitedness' of his spinners on this tour.
"No disrespect to Mo (Moeen Ali) and Rash (Adil Rashid), but Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar were world class bowlers in 2012. In these conditions you need that," the England captain said.
"Mo and Rash have bowled well but they are not yet in that league of Swann and Panesar. That is why we need a slightly different balance to the side. In 2012 we could play four bowlers, two seamers and two spinners, but in this side we need more options," he added.
The other England spinners who have featured in the series – Zafar Ansari (who got injured and had to leave the tour) and Gareth Batty – had failed to make any impression.
Their Indian counterparts, on the other hand, have absolutely run riot. They have taken 55 (or more than 75 percent) of the England wickets to fall so far. Ashwin, expectedly, has been the pick of the bowlers with 27 wickets so far in eight innings. The highlight of his efforts was a 10-wicket haul in the previous Test at Mumbai. Jadeja, with 16 wickets, has played the role of the assistant to a T. Jayant Yadav, who took the place of Amit Mishra as the third spinner, has shown he can bring immense value to the side.
The English batsmen have been all at sea against the Ashwin-Jadeja-Jayant triumvirate, and it may not be any different in Chennai as well.
However, such a stellar performance by the Indian was nothing out of the blue, as was the case with the batting of Kohli. He was desperately unlucky to have trod on his stumps in the first innings of the first Test, but showed his class with a match-saving innings in the second innings that was defined by a workman-like approach.
Thereafter he has flayed the England attack, hitting two centuries and as many fifties, one of the being a career-best 235. Records tumbled one after another as Kohli brandished his willow to telling effect, and has amassed 640 runs in the series so far, at an average of 128, and it is the second time that he has totalled 600 runs or more in a Test series, after the 692 runs he scored in Australia in 2014-15.
But even Kohli owning the opposition is not something extraordinary. Such has been its regularity, especially this year, that one expects nothing short of a hundred every time he goes out to bat these days.
What has, however, been the x-factor for India has been the solid contributions by the spin trio of Ashwin, Jadeja and Jayant with the bat. The three of them have added 633 runs together, including five fifties (three by Ashwin and one each by Jadeja and Jayant) and a century (Jayant's maiden Test ton in Mumbai).
In Mohali, all three of them hit half-centuries in the first innings, which was the first time that Nos 7, 8 and 9 scored fifties for India in the same Test. The solidity and assurance that they have provided lower down the order have afforded India the luxury of playing an extra bowler. It has given balance to the side and have often served to spoil England's plans when they had even the slightest of openings.
A case in point: when India were reduced to 307/6 and then 364/7, in reply to England's first innings total of 400 in Mumbai, Jayant came together with Kohli and added a record 241 runs for the eighth wicket, leaving the visitors high and dry.
"At one point, he was matching me shot for shot," Kohli said describing Jayant's innings. That is a massive certificate, especially when it comes to the individual who made the statement.
England also bat pretty deep on paper, but their lower order has largely been dormant. Nor have their top batsmen fired with any degree of consistency. After a brisk start in Rajkot, where they scored four centuries, the England batsmen have simply faded out.
Cook, who had been the star for his team in 2012, has done precious little barring a century in Rajkot and Joe Root can deliver much more than he actually has. England would badly want to set their batting in order, score enough in Chennai to cover up the lack of incisiveness of their bowlers. However, the form of Jonny Bairstow and Keaton Jennings, and to an extent, Ben Stokes will give England hope.
They also want to get their team selection right in Chennai — something which they did not do in Mumbai by playing a pacer too many. Ideally, Chris Woakes should share the new ball with James Anderson. Woakes has bowled with fire, hitting Cheteshwar Pujara a number of times on the helmet, and though he doesn't have a lot to show in the wickets column, he surely deserves another go. Also Root showed in Mumbai that he can be the third spinner for the side, which would give England the chance to bolster their batting by bringing in Gary Ballance.
India, on the other hand, would want to go with an unchanged eleven, though with nothing much to achieve in Chennai, except perhaps heaping more humiliation on the visitors, India could think of giving Manish Pandey a chance. Karun Nair hasn't done much in the two matches he played and testing out Pandey at the crucial No 5 position would make sense. Especially with the big Australia series coming up, India need to identify a back up for Ajinkya Rahane, and Pandey showed he belonged to the international level with a fantastic hundred against Australia in Sydney at the start of the year.
The rest of team pick themselves and the good work done by Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara's at the top of the order will also assure India.
England had been hurt by injuries to their key players Stuart Broad and Haseeb Hameed. India, on the other hand, has also had to deal with injuries to first-choice wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha, pace spearhead Mohammed Shami and key batsman Rahane, but what has saved the day was that replacements like Parthiv Patel and Bhuvneshwar Kumar stepped up to the plate.
The Chennai pitch has traditionally supported spinners, but there may be rain around, which would offer some moisture for the pacers to exploit.
So going into the final Test at the Chepauk, the odds are heavily stacked against the Englishmen. They would, however, draw inspiration from the fact half of the six losses that India had suffered on this ground have come against England. Kohli and Co, on the other hand, would not be too unhappy by India's overall record at Chepauk either. India had been unbeaten in 25 out of the 31 matches played at the venue, and have won 13 times, including half of all the matches (eight) that they played against England.
If the weather holds, it could well be 4-0 in favour of India by the end of this match. If England want to take at least something from this Test series, they would not only have to find a way to tackle Kohli, Ashwin and others, they would have to improve their performance significantly and come out of the psychological rut they have driven themselves into.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravichandran Ashwin (vc), Parthiv Patel (wk), Shardul Thakur, Manish Pandey, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
England: Alastair Cook(c), Keaton Jennings, Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Gareth Batty, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler, Ben Duckett, Steven Finn, Liam Dawson, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes.
Updated Date: Dec 15, 2016 15:22:10 IST