India have won only three Test series in 15 tours of England. The first of these was in 1971 when BS Chandrasekhar took six wickets for 38 runs to dismiss England for 101 in the second innings at the Oval in London. The next one came 15 years later when Dilip Vengsarkar’s back-to-back centuries at Lord's and Leeds gave India a 2-0 series win. And the last time India won a Test series in England was 15 years ago when Zaheer Khan’s nine wickets at Nottingham led to a 1-0 victory under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy.
Dravid is the coach of the current team that will try to win the series that India were leading 2-1 last year, when an outbreak of covid-19 and the impending resumption of IPL 2021 led to the final Test being postponed. At the time that the series got postponed, the team was riding high on the back of the amazing series win in Australia at the start of 2021. There was a real chance of India getting a series win and overturning a series of thrashings (4-0, 3-1, and 4-1 during the 2011, 2014, and 2018 tours respectively).
Helmed by coach Ravi Shastri and skipper Virat Kohli, India boldly fielded five bowlers, including a four-pronged pace attack. It paid off as the visiting team got into a winning position in the first Test before rain washed out play. India then pulled off a stunning win at Lord’s where Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami produced an unbeaten 89-run ninth wicket stand on the last day. The two bowlers, along with fellow pacers Mohammed Siraj and Ishant Sharma, then blew England away for 120. The third Test went to England as Kohli made the mistake of choosing to bat first on a treacherous, overcast morning at Leeds, and saw his team get bowled out for 78. But India bounced back in the fourth Test at the Oval as a second innings century by Rohit Sharma overcame a first innings deficit of 99. It’s a pity such a stirring series got truncated at that point.
Now the fifth Test of that series will be played at Edgbaston, Birmingham, starting Friday, 1 July. Right now, it’s as good as a one-off Test between two new sides as both India and England have revamped their teams, captains, and coaches.Rohit Sharma took over the captaincy from Kohli and led India to a 2-0 home series win over Sri Lanka. England is his first real challenge as a Test captain, but he has tested positive for covid-19 and may be unavailable. His deputy, KL Rahul, has already dropped out with a groin injury. That leads to the intriguing possibility of either young Rishabh Pant making his debut as Test captain, or Virat Kohli being given the chance to complete the series he skippered last year.
The opening partnership between Sharma and Rahul had laid the foundation for India’s success in England last year. It’s a blow for that to be broken. But India do have good replacements in the promising young talent of Shubman Gill—one of the heroes of the famous Brisbane Test victory in 2021—and the experienced Mayank Agarwal. The latter had made way for Rahul last year, after suffering a concussion during practice on the eve of the first Test. Agarwal has a habit of pushing hard at balls outside the off stump, which has been his undoing on tours abroad, after a great debut in Australia. He may be low on confidence too after a poor IPL season. So if Sharma is unable to play, much will depend on the mental fortitude of Gill and Agarwal in giving India a start.
The middle order too is vulnerable. It got a new look against Sri Lanka as Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were finally dropped after underperforming for over two years. Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer took their places. But now Pujara has been reinstated after collecting a bagful of runs in the current English county season for Surrey. Whether this marks a revival of his Test career or proves to be a backward step for the team remains to be seen. Kohli too has had a prolonged slump stretching back to the start of 2020. He will be hoping to reprise the century he got in Birmingham on the 2018 tour, but for that he has to curb his urge to play extravagant cover drives.
Thankfully for India, the bowling lineup doesn't look as disturbed. Bumrah, Shami, and Siraj can continue where they left off in September 2021. The only missing pacer is Ishant Sharma, but the almost equally tall Prasidh Krishna would be a welcome addition, given his current form, and the ability to bowl at over 140 kmph. The bounce he extracts could be a handful for England’s batsmen on the Edgbaston wicket.
The catch is that the team management may opt for the medium pace of Shardul Thakur for his batting. Or they may go for Ravichandran Ashwin as a second spinner alongside Ravindra Jadeja, because Edgbaston has something for spinners too. Like Thakur, Ashwin lengthens the batting, but it would be a defensive move compared to the option of attacking relentlessly with four pacers. The choice that Dravid makes may depend on how vulnerable he considers India’s batting to be.
England has had an even more dramatic transformation since last year. New coach Brendon McCullum has infused the team with the swashbuckling style he adopted earlier as captain of New Zealand. He has a kindred spirit in England’s new skipper Ben Stokes, who not only has a much more attacking mindset than the previous captain, Joe Root, but also an uncommon tactical nous. This was evident in England’s 3-0 triumph over the current Test world champions, New Zealand. Stokes had an uncanny sense of which bowler to bring on for a particular batsman, and this has clicked time and again. His handling of spinner Jack Leach, who took 10 wickets in the last Test with the help of strategic field placements, was a revelation.
Most inspiring of all has been the change in approach in England’s batting. A stark example of this was the manner in which Stokes came out swinging when England were tottering at 21-4 in the first innings of the third Test against New Zealand. The England captain fell to an injudicious shot, which caught flak from some commentators who pointed out that the Kiwi frontline pacers were nearing the end of their opening spells. But there was no let-up in the counterattack even after England were 55-6, and Jonny Bairstow resurrected the innings with 162 in 157 balls in the company of all-rounder Jamie Overton, who scored 97.
‘Bazball’ is the name of England’s new aggressive game, based on the England coach’s nickname, Baz. Bairstow and Stokes are not the only ones bringing a one-day or T20 mode to Test batting. Even Root has been much more proactive, to the extent of ramping a Kiwi pacer for a six behind the wicket-keeper a la Rishabh Pant. England have shown what’s possible when Test batsmen break free to play the kind of inventive shots we see in limited overs cricket. It’s not reckless, as Bairstow showed in paying due respect to bowlers when conditions were in their favour, but always being on the lookout for scoring opportunities and counterattack.
Pant too exemplifies that mindset, although he has a lot to learn from Bairstow in shot selection to increase his chances of consistency. Dravid was known as the Wall, whose dogged defence set up a famous victory over England at Leeds in 2002. So it will be interesting to see if ‘Pantastic’ India choose to try and outdo England in Bazball, or erect a new Wall with Pujara and Vihari. Either way, we’re in for a fascinating Test match.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.