Even a decade back, the most ardent fan would fear the worst when India travelled outside the sub-continent. A significant part of the Golden Generation of Indian batting was still around, but the pace resources were sketchy, inexperienced, threadbare.
How things have changed! Wistfulness has made way for genuine optimism. The changed outlook stems from a pace revolution; quick bowlers are coming through as if from a factory production line, and holding their own against all-comers, in all conditions.
It’s against this dynamics-modified backdrop that India approach the five-Test series in England. There is a wealth of pace riches for Virat Kohli to dig into as the visitors hunt for their first series win in the land of the Beatles since 2007. That is, however, only half the equation.
As ever, much will depend on how India’s celebrated batting line-up holds up against a gun English attack marshalled by the crack duo of James Anderson and Stuart Broad who, together, boast 1,140 Test scalps. Age has done little to dim Anderson’s light while Broad, like Ishant Sharma, has found a fresh lease of life by emulating the veteran Indian and bowling fuller in the second half of his glorious career.
England aren’t about Anderson and Broad alone. True, Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes are still hors de combat, recovering as they are from injury, and Ben Stokes has taken a leave of absence to address mental health concerns. England would undoubtedly have been better off for their presence, but they still have Sam Curran, the explosive Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson to fall back on. How’s that for depth?
Justifiably, the push for 20 wickets required to set up Test victories is glorified, but without runs on the board, wickets mean precious little. That’s where India will need to be at their very best in a country where they have lost 11 of their last 14 Tests spread over three outings. India have held their own everywhere, even in New Zealand despite not having won a series there since 2009, but England has been a bridge too far, English conditions a seemingly irresolvable conundrum, increasing exposure to swing and seam notwithstanding.
Opener Mayank Agarwal’s untimely concussion two days ahead of Wednesday’s first Test in Nottingham should pave the way for the resurrection of KL Rahul’s Test career. In his good mate’s unfortunate injury lies an opportunity for the man with five Test hundreds, all at the top of the tree but for some strange reason viewed only as a middle-order option in recent times.
Each one of India’s expected top six has played Test cricket in England previously, the core group of Kohli, his deputy Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara has been on more than one tour. Worryingly, their records are anything but encouraging. Kohli averages 36.35 in 10 Tests, thanks to an outstanding 2018 series when he smashed 593 runs in India’s 1-4 drubbing. Pujara’s corresponding number is 29.41 (nine Tests), Rahane’s 29.26 (10). It’s not hard to see why Indian followers must temper their enthusiasm if they aren’t to court disappointment.
What’s with England and India’s batting woes? To start with, the class of Anderson, a permanent fixture for India’s last four tours. There is no greater exponent of swing than the Lancastrian, on the brink of surpassing Anil Kumble’s mark of 619 to become Test cricket’s third highest wicket-taker. Anderson is a master of control, a la Glenn McGrath, but infinitely more potent in his backyard because he bowls the ball fuller, has such control over his right wrist that he can get it to tail away from the right-hander very late, and punishes the slightest lapse in concentration without mercy.
Anderson has had a trusted ally in Broad for a long time. Broad is the perfect foil, much taller and more hit-the-deck until a second wind has made him a dangerous swing bowler too. Between them, they invariably strike early blows, heaping pressure on middle-orders and exposing the underbelly to a support cast significantly better than passable.
While pitches in England might no longer be as grass-coated as in the past – that might change if only in retaliation for the surfaces India threw up for Joe Root’s men a few months back – there is enough in them to keep bowlers interested, and particularly so because the Dukes ball never seems to age. As was obvious during the final of the World Test Championship, even a 70-over-old Dukes keeps swinging and nibbling off the seam, the dark lacquer an ally for the faster men even on a bright, cloudless day.
England, though, aren’t invincible at home. Intriguingly, since the start of 2010, they have lost a significantly greater percentage of Tests (24 per cent) at home than India (2.22 per cent), New Zealand (15.21 per cent) or Australia (18.33 per cent). That remarkable stat owes itself to their plummeting batting standards. Minus Stokes, only skipper Root among their specialist batsmen, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow included, averages upwards of 35. It’s precisely this vulnerability India’s bowlers will seek to exploit, provided their batsmen given them decent first-innings totals.
‘Decent totals’ assume different connotations in various parts of the world. In India, they could border around 450 even if tracks are true, because they will deteriorate rapidly from day three and you wouldn’t want to bat a second time. In England, they will be in the range of 350, not beyond this Indian unit. If they need recent inspiration, they need look no beyond the hosts’ meltdown against the Kiwis earlier in the summer. New Zealand posted 388 and 378 in the two Tests, dominating the former which ended in a draw and sweeping to an eight-wicket win in the latter.
In that light, it becomes essential for India to get their pace combine right. In the WTC final, India sold themselves short by opting for sameness. None of Ishant, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami is an out-and-out swing bowler, which means a place must be found for Mohammed Siraj, easily the first among equals on that count.