Big Picture

As per popular perception, India the country appears to hold a special spite for England the cricket team. What else could the host broadcaster’s sales pitch always be trying to play on? In 2011 the advertising mocked an effeminate white man. India lost 4-0. In 2012-13, the ad campaign centred on playing the Englishmen like musical instruments. India lost 2-1. Thankfully this time the promotion is merely announcing that Virat Kohli and his team will play the England team (and not Angrez – Englishmen, the nationality – like last time) like a band.

There is good reason to believe India will have it easy. They have looked near invincible at home since the start of the last season with the guile of R Ashwin and the accuracy of Ravindra Jadeja not giving visiting batsmen any breathing space. This side has fewer weak links and unfit bodies than the one that lost to England four years ago. Since that series England have lost two match-winning spinners and a genius batsman who could turn Tests single-handedly.

In Bangladesh, Alastair Cook had to hide his spinners in his side’s 1-1 draw, a series in which the home spinners took 38 of the 40 England wickets. They are also without James Anderson, one of the finest exponents of reverse swing, for one Test at least.

While England struggled against Bangladesh, India had a response for everything New Zealand threw at them in a 3-0 series win. The lower order scored runs when the batsmen failed, the spinners kept finding ways to get batsmen out, the quicks chipped in when the spinners tired or when the ball reversed, and there was no let-up in the intensity in the field. They will just want to keep repeating what they have been doing over the last two home series as they take Test cricket to a new outpost: Rajkot; the Saurashtra region has a rich history of providing Test cricketers and patronage to the sport.

If England are to win a Test, they will need to take all of New Zealand’s discipline and add to it. They will have to reverse the ball, which New Zealand couldn’t but England did in equally humid conditions in Bangladesh. Their lower order scored crucial runs in Bangladesh, but they will have to keep doing so against a much more accomplished attack. They have been given a small opening through injuries to KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan; they will have to capitalise on that.

Along the way they will have to repeat what they did in Bangladesh: win a toss; India have not been put under scoreboard pressure since the pitch revolution in the country. England are the only travelling team to win a toss in the last 15 Tests in Asia. They won the Test. Only on one other occasion over this period has a team won a Test in Asia despite losing the toss.

Form guide

India WWWDW (last five matches, most recent first)
England LWLWW

Watch out for…

Local boys Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja have honed their skills, playing hours and hours of tireless cricket, in this arid land. Jadeja learnt his fielding here, diving on the bare grounds. Pujara got his patience and wrists scoring tons of runs on the slow pitches of Saurashtra. Jadeja learnt his bowling by operating against the insatiable batsmen of the Pujara variety. The Test venue is a new ground where they haven’t played much of their cricket, but in front of their home crowd they might feel a little more responsibility is on them – especially Pujara, because India’s batting line-up looks a little susceptible now.

Ben Stokes must have horrible memories of playing India. On a dead Trent Bridge track where tailenders scored runs for fun, he scored a duck, followed by an utterly forgettable pair as England collapsed twice at Lord’s. The Stokes that comes to India is a different player altogether. He is the man England will go to when they need lower-order runs. He is the man England will go to when they need reverse in Anderson’s absence. He is the man England will go to when they need inspiration. When they need magic. If India manage to keep him subdued, you will know England are done for.

The Big Three might be on its way out as a concept, but whenever these three teams play each other, things get ugly. India and England are two of the worst-behaved teams in the world, but only in each other’s, or Australia’s, presence. India have just played out a series against New Zealand in good spirit and England won hearts in Bangladesh, but expect shenanigans and skirmishes in this series. Forget who has sinned or not, it is usually a matter of who casts the first stone, after which all hell breaks loose.

Team news

With injuries to three key batsmen, India have to rejig their trusted winning combination. While Gautam Gambhir should continue to be the replacement opener after he looked in decent touch when he played against New Zealand in Indore, there are two spots that are not yet decided. One of them will go to a debutant. A like-for-like replacement for Rohit Sharma at No. 6 would be Karnataka’s Karun Nair, but the presence of Hardik Pandya in the squad depends on the pitch. If India consider the pitch to not be helpful enough, or if they see England as a bigger batting threat than New Zealand, they could play Pandya as the fifth bowler who bats at No. 8. Pandya could even be the second quick if India decide to play three spinners. However, given the pitch looks like the one in Kanpur, expect India to play two spinners and two quicks with Ishant Sharma edging out Umesh Yadav.

India (probable) 1 Gautam Gambhir, 2 M Vijay, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Karun Nair/Hardik Pandya, 7 R Ashwin, 8 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 9 Ravindra Jadeja, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Ishant Sharma/Amit Mishra/Umesh Yadav

England have already announced that the 19-year-old Haseeb Hameed with become the youngest debutant England opener of all time. Ben Duckett, who scored a half-century in his last innings in Bangladesh, will get another opportunity, but this time at No. 4. That means Jos Buttler, who promises aggression and unorthodoxy that can test India, must wait for his chance on this trip. With the presence of allrounders in the side, England are likely to play six bowlers: three quick and three slow.

England (probable) 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Haseeb Hameed, 3 Joe Root, 4 Ben Duckett, 5 Moeen Ali, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 Gareth Batty

Pitch and conditions

This is Rajkot’s Test debut, but first-class numbers at this relatively new ground hold enough hints of what to expect: 20 five-wicket hauls for spinners in 16 matches. In Jadeja’s last match here, all 39 wickets falling to bowlers went to spinners. Jadeja took 13. There are cracks running across the length of this pitch although there patches of green too. Having said that, it is nothing England won’t expect given the recent trend of pitches in Asia – barring the UAE. If it is any consolation for them, this pitch is not expected to turn as much or as early as the ones in Bangladesh did.

The outfield and the square are lush green to discourage reverse swing, but it is likely reverse will be down to humidity. England did extract reverse swing in Bangladesh, and the air in Gujarat is way drier than in Bangladesh.

Stats and trivia

  • India have taken part in 33 series of five Tests or more. They have never won more than two Tests in any of them
  • Stuart Broad will become the 14th England player to play 100 Tests. He averages 145.5 against India in away Tests against 17.79 at home
  • R Ashwin averaged 52.64 in the last home series against England, but since then Ashwin has taken 99 wickets in four home series at an average of 16.56
  • England have the best record for teams visiting India since 2000, winning three and losing four Tests
  • Virat Kohli averages 20.12 against England. He has done better against every other opponent.

Quotes

“The mindset is to not compete anymore, it is to win every Test and series. For that you have to be at your A game all the time, and keep improving your A game.”
Virat Kohli has high ambitions, and hopes to match them with the hard work and skill

“We are coming as massive underdogs, there’s no doubt about that. Obviously India have got to No.1 in the world and played some brilliant cricket here, so we’re very aware this is a huge challenge. We’ll have to learn very quickly. But also we’ve got nothing to fear, because not many of our side have actually played cricket over here.”
Stuart Broad has no doubts about the massive challenge his side faces.

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