England to hit the ground running in India....
The most exciting sporting fixture of February for those of us that don’t follow the NFL is undoubtedly the start of England’s four Test tour of India. We are all set for a corker of a series between two top sides.
Both teams arrive on the back of confidence boosting wins, India particularly so after their brave backs-to-the-wall victory in Australia. This despite being skittled for just 36 in the opening Test, the loss of their talismanic captain and a hatful of injuries. They deserve a huge amount of credit for ending a proud Australian record at the Gabba and winning the series.
England too will have gained plenty from their recent 2-0 victory in Sri Lanka. This despite losing both tosses. Joe Root gave a masterclass in playing spin, sweeping the Sri Lankan spinners into submission. Joss Buttler looked in great touch, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad both bowled with experience and control in the single Test that each played, and Lawrence showed enough to suggest that he has a future at this level. The spinners bowled plenty of much needed overs and took their fair share of wickets, whilst perhaps not looking like world beaters. It will be the openers and the spinners who will come under the most scrutiny for England over the coming months.
Whilst no one is in any doubt as to the huge task that lies ahead for England, as India look for their 13th and record extending home series victory on the spin, there is plenty in the visitors favour. I expect this to be a tighter series than the 7/1 for England suggests. Backing them for the series win is tempting, but it is the 4/1 for them to win the first test that is simply too big to ignore.
In terms of preparation, both teams will have spent six days cooped up in hotel rooms, with just three full days practice. One could argue that England has the edge in technical preparation, having played recently in conditions much more akin to those that both sides will face here. There will need to be a fairly swift adjustment from the Indian batsman. Not impossible, but something to be considered nonetheless.
An angle I particularly like is the change in attitude of the English batsman under the new tenure of Chris Silverwood. Much criticism was made of England’s Test side under Trevor Bayliss for the undue risks taken and the tempo that many batsmen felt that they needed to score at. I don’t blame them at all for the way they went about it. Bayliss’s remit when he took charge was to improve our white ball game, which he resoundingly did with a famous World Cup win. Job done. In the modern three format calendar there was always going to be repercussions and a mind-set shift from batting long periods in a Test to belting 400 in an ODI game wasn’t always possible for the players asked to bat differently on an almost weekly basis. With the focus now on the Ashes at the end of the year, the Test side now have a clear template. It is nothing radical, just a return to the tried and tested method of big first Innings runs. Since Silverwood and Root joined forces, England have made more than 400 in the first innings in six of their 14 Tests, a significant improvement on the previous four years when England reaching 400 was as rare as hen’s teeth. Joe Root showed them what is expected in Sri Lanka once they get in, and I expect his and many others' conversion rates to improve under Silverwood.
The second angle that is particularly relevant is to do with the Indian mentality, and the increased expectation. After being bowled out for 36 and pulverized in the opening Test it was very much survival mode from there on in. They were written off, and had nothing to lose, which is often the perfect scenario with which to begin a career. The scenario is very different now, and the Indian fans will be riding the crest of a wave. They will expect to beat England convincingly. Many of these players will now be hoping to pin down their spot for years to come, and with that comes added pressure. As the saying goes, expectation is the mother of all disappointment. The expectation will help England here, particularly if they start the game well.
To help get them off to the required flyer, England will have the services of Joss Buttler for the first Test, before being rested as part of the totally understandable but frustrating rotation policy. It is Buttler’s inclusion in just the first Test that swung me from backing England for the series. To win games of cricket in India you need batsmen with the ability to seize the moment when the chance arises and pile pressure back on to the bowlers, as Kevin Pietersen did quite brilliantly in 2012. I thought Buttler in Sri Lanka looked as assured as I had seen him in Test cricket, and totally clear in his mind of his method against spin. I expect him to have a big impact on this game with the bat.
Much has been made of the lack of firepower of the English spinners, and there is a worry that the Indian batsman will not be put under enough pressure to enable the seamers to bowl short sharp and threatening spells from the other end. I actually feel that England are in pretty good shape with Leach, Bess, the returning Moeen Ali and some overs from Joe Root to call on. Whilst they may not include a mystery or wrist spinner to challenge both edges of the bat, there is enough experience and variety amongst them to complement the fine seam bowling arsenal at England’s disposal. England welcome back Moeen Ali during the series, who despite two years in the test wilderness does have over 180 test wickets to his name and 100’s in India.
When assessing the spinners on show for each team there is obviously a standout bowler in Ravichandran Ashwin. His 377 wickets in 74 games is exceptional. But without the injured Ravi Jadeja the other frontline Indian spinners (Sundar/K.Yadav/A Patel) are unproven at this level with just seven games between them and 30 wickets. For comparison, England’s three frontline options combine for 255 wickets. The key here is that Ashwin has actually had limited success against England, who have managed to play him better than everyone else over the years. He averages 36 against England with the ball, the highest average of all the teams that he has played against. Root, Stokes, Pope and Buttler are all now fine players of spin, and whilst respecting his fine record they won’t be having sleepless nights over Ashwin. And if he struggles to make the expected impact, then the pressure will be firmly on the three young Indian spinners.
Something else to throw in the mix is that the first test will be played behind closed doors which can only benefit the away side, particularly in India. Recent studies across a number of sports have found the win rate ratio of home teams has dropped with the absence of home crowds, particularly at grounds with traditionally more partisan crowds. There can be no more partisan crowd than an Indian cricket crowd.
For all that the return of captain Virat Kohli has to be a plus for India, the skipper actually failed to make a single century in 2020; going 30 innings and 392 days without scoring a ton. Smith, Root and Williamson have all hit the ground running in 2021 and Kohli will be desperate to do so too. Until he does, a slight question mark must remain.
In summary, England have a number of champion cricketers in Root, Stokes, Buttler, Anderson, Broad and Archer, with Pope tipped to join them in the future. With these cricketers in the side they are more than capable of winning on any ground, against anyone in the world, and should not be 4/1 for any Test Match. They have the winning habit, have had a decent preparation and have perhaps the best non-Asian player of spin in the world in supreme nick. They will also be buoyed by the return of Stokes with bat, ball and in the field and the rested Jofra Archer who has had huge success in Indian conditions, albeit in the shortest format of the game.
Let’s not forget that this India side was bundled out for its lowest ever test score just four matches ago. Combined with the increased expectation on India and England's re-focus on Test cricket, England are overpriced at 4/1 to start the series with a win.
2pts England to win the first Test v India @ 4/1
Update: Patrick Reed’s five shot win at Torrey Pines this weekend was a huge confident boost and a serious move in the right direction having uncharacteristically missed the cut last week. It was business as usual, with his typical short game prowess on show throughout and yet another cheating controversy. He continues to ruffle feathers and be over priced. With ten weeks to go until the Masters it was a timely win and it sets him up perfectly for the run up to Augusta.
- 2pts win England to win the 1st Test v India @ 4/1
- 1pt win Melon for the Ryanair Chase @ 10/1
- 1pt e/w P Reed for the Masters @ 28/1 (Place terms ⅕ the odds the first 6)
- 2pts win England to win the T20 World Cup @ 7/2
- 0.5 pt win Eion Morgan Sports Personality of the Year @ 66/1
Bets are rated from 0.5pts to 5pts
Profit & Loss to date: 0