England are on a roll, but India will ask tough questions

Joe Root's men are in form and questions are being answered... but India in India is a different beast entirely.
30 Jan 2021
Rob Stileman

It’s safe to say that the England Test cricket side is on a bit of roll.

For the first time since World War I, England have won five consecutive Test matches away from home. They have also triumphed in their last four Test series.

Credit must go to Chris Silverwood, who took over as England coach towards the end of 2019. It’s an encouraging start to his tenure. Under his guidance, this relatively young team (Broad and Anderson aside) is beginning to feel quite settled. In particular, areas such as the top of the order, wicket-keeper and our spinners are beginning to feel less problematic.

Take the top order batting as a case in point. Although neither Dom Sibley or Zak Crawley had a stellar time in Sri Lanka - both have made promising starts to their international careers more broadly. Crawley’s mammoth 267 vs Pakistan showcased his talent and class. Not many 22 year olds can bat like that! 

Meanwhile, Sibley appears to have the mettle required for Test cricket. He isn’t as fluid or easy-on-the-eye as Crawley but he values his wicket and has shown an ability to adapt and improve on his game, as demonstrated by his half-century in the second and final Test in Sri Lanka.

With Rory Burns returning to the fold for the India series, and Jonny Bairstow looking more comfortable at three than he ever did lower down the order, England find themselves with options at the top. The days of Alastair Cook plus one unproven partner, with Joe Root shoe-horned in at three, are starting to feel like a distant memory.

Behind the stumps, Jos Buttler is now England’s undisputed number one. A proven white-ball superstar, he is beginning to look just as at home in Test cricket. Crucial runs vs Pakistan in the summer, along with a strong performance with the gloves in Galle, have cemented his place.

Even the spinners, Dom Bess and Jack Leach, had solid outings in Sri Lanka. They took 22 wickets between them, including taking 8 of the 10 as Sri Lanka collapsed in the crucial third innings of the final Test. If Sri Lanka had scored another 100 runs, the series probably would have finished 1-1. Bess had a particularly fruitful tour with 12 wickets at only 21.25.

But despite the progress being made, England are far from the finished article. Any win in Asia is significant, but England were aided by the opposition. Sri Lanka were erratic with the bat and, aside from the excellent Embuldeniya, mediocre with the ball. India won’t be.

India have arguably the best batting line-up in Test cricket. Their middle-order of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane oozes class. They won’t be gifting a five-fer to Dom Bess like the Sri Lankans did.

And given Bess and Leach struggled to contain Nooran Dickwella in their last two games, how will they fair against India’s man of the moment Rishabh Pant? Pant lit up the Australian summer with magnificent stroke play and calculated aggression, all culminating in his pivotal knock to win the final Test at the Gabba.

Unlike Sri Lanka, India also bat deep. The 8th wicket stand between Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur in the first innings of the final Test vs Australia is testament to this. Meanwhile, veteran spinner Ravi Ashwin has four Test centuries to his name.

Taking 20 wickets will be a tough ask for England - especially in conditions that don’t suit the likes of Anderson, Broad, Woakes and Curran. The fast-bowling duo of Mark Wood and Jofra Archer and the two spinners Bess and Leach will need to have series to remember if England are to succeed.

Similar questions will be asked of England’s batting too. Jonny Bairstow is being rested for the start of the India series, meaning England’s top three will almost certainly be Burns, Sibley, Crawley. None of them have looked that comfortable against spin.

If Roston Chase was causing problems for Burns in the summer, how will he deal with Ashwin on a bunsen in Chennai? Likewise, Sibley never looked comfortable against the Sri Lankan spinners. His lack of scoring shots may again be exposed, especially given that India’s bowlers will bowl fewer bad balls than Sri Lanka’s. While young Zak Crawley only averaged 8.75 in Sri Lanka. India is a tough place when you’re out of form.

Much therefore hinges on the captain Joe Root and the returning Ben Stokes. If England are to win, the most important thing is that they match their opponents in weight of runs. After two mammoth centuries at Galle, Joe Root is in career-best form - England cannot win in India if his runs dry up. Stokes will also be required to bat for long periods, especially if the top three falter.

Given all this, the size of England’s task cannot be overstated. India have only lost two home Test series since 2000. But not only that, India are coming into the series off the back of their own miraculous away win in Australia. From being bowled out for 36 in Adelaide to shattering Australia’s 34 year record at the Gabba. It was a remarkable performance from a supremely talented young Indian side. They will be itching to get stuck into England on home soil. 

England are making progress under Root and Silverwood, and they are a good side. But India are a better side, at least in Indian conditions, and they will ask tough questions of this England team.

How will England fair? A valiant 2-1 series defeat I reckon.