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India The Ultimate Test of Skill and Temperament

by Neil Burns

Cricket’s rich history proves how difficult it is for touring teams to win in India. Legendary Australian captain Steve Waugh referred to his team’s attempt to win there as ‘The Final Frontier’. Australia had broken the Windies 15 year stranglehold on world cricket and won The Frank Worrell Trophy in the Caribbean with a mixture of skill, strategy, and bloody-mindedness. But, success in India proved elusive for Waugh’s all-conquering test team.

In 2012, Alastair Cook set off on his captaincy career with the hope of winning in India, but in reality, with little expectation of being able to do so.

India under MS Dhoni had won the ICC World Cup and had some of the game’s greatest batsmen in their line up. To say they were strong would be an understatement. 

England’s team had become fractured due to the Kevin Pietersen fall-out during the series versus South Africa at home. This led to the team’s captain and cultural architect Andrew Strauss retiring at the end of the previous summer’s defeat to South Africa.

Strauss’s game had been struggling for some while, and during 2012, it seemed like ‘The Kevin Pietersen issue’ had impacted the skipper to the point where his mind had become distracted by the unwelcome ‘noise’ in and around the team. His ability to concentrate on the ball being delivered had seemingly ‘gone’ too. When he padded up to a straight one (without offering a stroke) for no score in his last test innings, it was a sad end to a good and important player’s excellent test career.   The forthcoming England Tour to India was no place for a player who was unhappy with his game or uncomfortable in his job as the team’s guiding light. Strauss made the right call for himself (by retiring), and the team too. India needs the leader to be fresh and keen to build on his relationships with teammates not merely continue them, A new captain also means there might be chances for new players to come into the team/squad and freshen things up.

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Cook was able to broker a ‘peace deal’ with the genius batsman Pietersen, and it proved a masterstroke by him and Head Coach Andy Flower to re-integrate England’s most brilliant of batsmen for the greater good of English cricket. The team’s chances of playing well in tough climatic and challenging playing conditions were enhanced and cook’s standing as the new leader strengthened because of his ability to be mature and collaborative in his leadership style and because his team was more capable of winning test matches with elite performers central to the strategic plans. A winning captain is a powerful captain.

I mention the details behind the start to England’s successful tour to India in 2012 because Joe Root begins the upcoming test series which begins on Friday 5th February, in imperious form and his team feeling confident after an excellent series victory in Sri Lanka very recently. It is becoming clearer by the month that Joe Root is fashioning a team in his own image and that his relationship with Head Coach Chris Silverwood is healthy.

Can England win in India? Yes, they can. But, will they? I hope so, because I am an England fan first and foremost, but my head rules my heart in professional judgments and I can’t see England’s deficits – top order batting and spin bowling being transformed in a few weeks to enable them to beat a confident home team fresh from their remarkable success on the recent tour to Australia.

Virat Kohli returns with a team that has matured rapidly in his absence. Kohli will be keen to re-assert his authority as the team’s leader (which may prove problematical if England start well) and will be keen to show the world his batting prowess again after leaving the tour early (after the heavy 3 day defeat in the 1st test) for paternity leave. 

With the England squad all testing negative for COVID-19, the management team will have a full touring party to select from before the team for the 1st test at Chennai is selected. But, they have some problems to overcome if they are to succeed in India. The top three batting positions are occupied by inexperienced players uncertain of their place in England’s strongest XI. A couple of poor tests may spell the end of Zak Crawley’s first incarnation as an England test cricketer.

Making ‘big runs’ against spin, allied to his reputation as an excellent team man, smart learner, and good player of pace bowling, will see Crawley inked in for the English summer and only a poor season will then jeopardise his chances of touring Australia next winter. 

Dom Sibley had a poor time of it in Sri Lanka until he played a match-winning innings on the final day of the series. He is seemingly a phlegmatic individual who appears to be comfortable playing his own game and dis-regarding some of the more critical observations about his technique and preference for the legside in his scoring strokes. 

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Rory Burns is returning to the team after paternity leave but his lack of cricket, and especially the disadvantage of no playing acclimatisation on the sub-continent before the series must be a concern for the team’s management. It may have made more sense to retain Jonny Bairstow’s services for the 1st test following on from his good form in Sri Lanka. Burns is a long way behind the match-tough cricketers who experienced by the tour of Sri Lanka, and he will need to get off to a good start to prevent ‘the noise’ in his head becoming unwelcome and uncomfortable if he cannot find top form.

Jos Buttler’s inclusion alongside the returning Ben stokes forms a powerful ‘engine room’ along with Joe Root to either rescue England from a poor start or help the team push on after the top three have performed their roles successfully.    Big first innings runs are vital – and I remain concerned that England has too many question marks about the quality of its’ batting to feel confident about beating India on their home soil.

However, my biggest concern about England’s cricket is the quality of its spin bowlers. Jack leach and Dom Bess seem quality young men and are thoughtful, earnest cricketers, but for this experienced observer, each spinner lacks the desired quality at test level on the sub-continent. A lack of accuracy , and a lack of experience in the conditions and knowing what pace(s) to bowl on different surfaces or on different days of the test match will hinder their prospects of success in comparison to the likes of Jadeja and Ashwin. Plus, they have to bowl to India’s batsmen – which has proved a major problem for even the best overseas spin bowlers down the years.

Bess’s action seems to have  a fundamental flaw in that he delivers the ball from such a high position that it will prove difficult for him to get the drift that great off-spinners of yesteryear have always been able to achieve, thus bringing both outside edge (drift) and inside edge (spin) into play.

England’s wicket-keeping position remains a connundrum. In my opinion, Ben Foakes is the best wicket-keeper and is a very good batsman too. Joss Buttler had a good series with gloves and bat in Sri Lanka which strengthened his hold on the job,  while Jonny Bairstow has openly declared his wish to remain a candidate to wear the gloves in the future. The waters are murky here – unless Buttler stays for the duration of the tour and plays exceptionally well. As that isn’t going to happen because of the rest and rotation policy (for mental health reasons) , then there is a possibility that Foakes could play very well and make a strong case for usurping Buttler next summer.

Some may argue that competition for place sis healthy. Personally, I like to see the main positions being occupied by top-class established player as opposed to having uncertainty about whether player A or player B is good enough.

These next few weeks could define the careers of some England players for the next 12 months – let’s hope Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Foakes, Leach and Bess can find their ‘A game’ and show the world that they are intelligent, skilful cricketers capable of succeeding in challenging climatic conditions. The one big opportunity they have is that the team environment seems happy under the Root/Silverwood axis and  for the 1st test, there will be no crowd in attendance meaning that the battle will be exclusively between bat and ball.

Can Joe Root maintain his excellent form? I think he will need to if England are to be competitive in the next month. It may prove to be his biggest test.

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