There’s a rare opportunity beckoning for India – the chance to beat both England and Australia in away Test series.
England are in a state of flux after a devastating loss at Lord’s and then a less-than-convincing win over the predictably inconsistent Pakistan at Headingley. Australia’s problems are self-induced, with the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa ensuring their two best batsmen will be missing from the series against India.
A reasonably settled Indian side’s first hurdle is England. They will face that challenge boosted by the confidence that the hosts are no closer to solving the myriad problems that surfaced on their recent tour of Australia and New Zealand.
England’s top-order collapses are now a regular occurrence, which is not surprising when both opening positions are under a cloud. If it weren’t for the fact that Alastair Cook’s numerous partners have been under intense scrutiny, Cook himself would be in jeopardy.
Two classic Cook double-centuries can’t mask the fact that in his last 29 Test innings – a period of 12 months – he has had 19 scores under 20, including ten single-figure dismissals. If an opener isn’t making centuries regularly then he has to ensure the opposition doesn’t get at the middle order while the ball is still new. Too often Cook is doing neither.
Adding to England’s frailties, Cook’s current partner, Keaton Jennings, is an already failed Test opener who has a porous defence. Previously, a visit from India would be a wonderful opportunity for struggling English openers to recapture their form, but the tourists now have a well-balanced attack that includes genuine pace and cagey seamers in addition to the traditionally strong spin bowling.
England’s dicey batting order will face yet another stiff test.
New selection guru Ed Smith might have cleverly plucked the in-form Jos Buttler from the IPL, but the problem is his confidently aggressive batting only bolsters an already strong middle order. At least Smith has convinced Joe Root to bat at No. 3, which is the correct spot for the consistent captain.
Root is followed by Dawid Malan, who is unconvincing at No. 4, and Jonny Bairstow, whose presence at five would be more palatable if he conceded the gloves to Buttler and played solely as a front-line batsman. All this adds up to a lot of uncertainty for a team about to enter a tough series against a strong opponent.
However, the headaches don’t end there for England.
Smith’s other notable choice in his selection debut was offspinner Dom Bess, an energetic and effervescent cricketer. His batting and desire to be involved in the contest are laudable but the early signs are that his offspin won’t threaten an Indian team bred on facing this type of bowler regularly.
In one over at Headingley, Bess delivered more full tosses than R Ashwin offers up in a year, a prospect that players like Virat Kohli and M Vijay should be relishing.
Apart from the openers’ batting, England’s other major problem on the tour of Australia and New Zealand was that the pace attack comprised all right-arm bowlers of similar speed. Their inability to unearth a genuine pace bowler is a greater problem when they are overseas, but if the late UK summer is hot and dry, they will also need someone who can shake things up on home pitches in an attempt to dramatically change the course of a game.
In recent times, England have relied on swing bowling and a vibrant middle order to produce success at home. There is no doubt that the swing bowling of Jimmy Anderson will present the Indian line-up with a serious challenge, and if there’s movement off the seam, Stuart Broad will also be a handful. Nevertheless India have the stronger batting line-up of the two teams and their variety in attack could help negate England’s middle-order strength if the openers continue to fail.
England are an enticing prospect for India before they even contemplate Australia’s woes.