India are overwhelming favourites for what promises to be an extraordinary series, but is there an outside chance that England, enjoying their romantic affair with ‘Bazball’, could come away with a series win in India for the first time since 2012?
India’s start to test cricket in 2024 has been a mixed bag. After losing the CWC23 final to Australia comprehensively, the question has been asked whether they would be able to bounce back to the giant cricketing nation they are, especially with the overwhelming majority of their World Cup squad playing in both formats. In their most recent two-match series in South Africa they were beaten heavily by a strong South African side by an innings and 32 runs in the first test, the only notable contributions a gritty KL Rahul ton and Virat Kohli’s 76 in which innings the visitors were rolled for 131.
The second test, however, broke the record for the shortest test match with a result in history with only 107 overs being bowled. Mohammed Siraj was the obvious standout with 6-15 in the first innings as South Africa were bowled out for 55. India went on to win by 7 wickets, but the main point of interest was the ‘poor’ and ‘unsatisfactory’ Newlands pitch. In general, an okay start to 2024 for India. Their strength will be on the turning, dry pitches back on home soil.
England, on the other hand, will be looking to bring joy back to fans after what was a dismal showing at the World Cup last year. They will want to bring back memories of an unforgettable home summer in which the Ashes resulted in a 2-2 draw. Being in the sub-continent, however, will prove difficult and has the potential to be Bazball’s most strenuous task thus far.
Joe Root produced a masterful double hundred the last time England travelled to India for a test series. It all went drastically wrong after that as they lost the next three tests on very questionable pitches. That England side was a disjointed team which had won 1 in 17 test matches – a stark comparison to England now. Being led by Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, they have transformed English cricket and stand a much better chance of returning to England with a huge series win in India this year. This is a feat that would surely cement their place as one of the best test teams in the world.
With the series starting on 25th January, England’s main concern at this time will be the fitness of Ben Stokes. The England captain’s knee surgery, only two months out from the start of the series, is a desperate attempt to ensure fitness. This is one of the most challenging series a captain can endure, and England’s hopes will be dramatically dented if he cannot be included in the team that takes to the field on day one in Hyderabad. Would Ollie Pope be given the chance to captain in Stokes’ absence, or would McCullum and Rob Key choose the safety of Joe Root, even with his average record?
England’s squad announcement raised a few eyebrows, notably the inclusion of two uncapped spinners, Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley. The former has only played six first class matches. If he is given a chance to play, it will be the opportunity of a lifetime for him, at only 20 years old. Few of us could have foreseen his inclusion in the squad. Jack Leach will play his first test match since suffering a stress fracture to his back in the summer. He is the key to England’s success with the ball, but he will need to be more consistent than he was in the 2021 series, after Rishabh Pant blasted him to all parts of the ground throughout all four games. This is easier said than done, as India’s spinners undoubtedly have more skill and experience, with Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja two obvious assets.
England’s batting in the last year has been a marvellous spectacle and has boosted the viewership of Test cricket in England. This has been both fun to watch and calculated at times, with the power of Jonny Bairstow and finesse of Joe Root proving to be a deadly combination against India at Edgbaston in 2022. The hosts chased down 378 in an absolute thriller in which they had initially looked dead and buried.
This is the thing about this England side. They have the belief that they can win a game from situations that the old England would crumble in. They have proved time and time again that they are a side full of quality even when the whole country doubts them.
England’s chances this time around will heavily rely on how well the batsman play spin. Joe Root is an extraordinary player of spin, but a lot of the other frontline batsman struggle slightly. Ollie Pope for example is a wonderfully talented player, but struggled in 2021 in India. In last summer’s Ashes, Harry Brook proved to be a talented player of spin, but the question will be whether he will be able to apply his aggressive mentality to sharp-turning pitches.
Zak Crawley proved his many critics wrong in the Ashes, but another stern test awaits him and his opening partner, Ben Duckett. They will be tested against some of the very best seam bowlers including an in-form Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj. There is no doubt that eyes will be on the pair to lay a good platform for the middle order to come in and play their naturally attacking game.
Another major factor is the lack of Stuart Broad following his retirement from cricket in 2023. He has always been a bowler that England have turned to when in desperate need of a wicket, something England may miss dearly. With James Anderson unlikely to play all five tests, the pressure will be put on Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood. England’s seam attack seems to lack a bit of pace, bar Mark Wood of course, another player not necessarily likely to be fit for the duration of the series.
India will go into the series as favourites, but this England team will do anything they can to spoil the party. I think that the first test will prove decisive, as in any series, the winner holding a strong upper hand for the remainder of the series. With England currently scheduled to arrive only three days before the start of the first test, India will be eager to punish England in the early sessions of day one.
Conscious of India’s mighty spin attack the Bazball approach may not be as effective as it has been to date. There is a chance that England could be blown away in this series, but the optimist in me says that it would be foolish to write off the visitors completely, and the potential for an upset could well be on the cards.
Written by Ned Howard-Vyse