The English team is facing a difficult challenge as they try to conquer India’s strong home ground.
The elite and influential figures of Indian cricket gathered at the Park Hyatt hotel in Hyderabad on Tuesday evening for a glamorous dinner where four years’ worth of yearly awards were given to Ravichandran Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Deepti Sharma, and others, due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.
In an alternate reality, there would have been additional cause for celebration on the evening. However, one trophy was absent. The World Cup, which eluded Rohit Sharma’s team in November, still stings in India. This upcoming five-Test series against England, starting on Thursday, presents an opportunity to regain some national pride.
Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that defeating Ben Stokes and his daring team would hold significant meaning. After all, it would simply be another addition to the already impressive record on Indian soil that has spanned over 11 years and includes 14 consecutive series victories – making it the longest home streak by a Test team in history. However, following a disappointing 1-1 draw in South Africa (two-match Test series are not ideal) and a recent 3-0 sweep of Afghanistan in some low-profile Twenty20s, this upcoming match holds great importance as it is the biggest stage since the heartbreak in Ahmedabad. It is an opportunity for India to reaffirm their dominant status, retain the Anthony de Mello Trophy, and put Bazball in its rightful place.
England’s upcoming eight-week tour marks the beginning of a challenging year with 17 Tests. It also concludes a rough winter for their men’s team, who underperformed in the World Cup and suffered losses in both white-ball series in the Caribbean. A loss in this tour would only add to the dissatisfaction, making it a difficult time for team director Rob Key despite a promising start to his tenure.
Stokes and his team may not perceive it in the same way, given that Key has divided leadership responsibilities and their record is strong. While the Ashes series at home last year may have been a lost chance, their partnership since 2022 has resulted in 13 wins and only four losses out of 18 matches – a ratio that surpasses even Australia, the current Test champions.
They are, however, seriously up against it. While Virat Kohli’s absence from the first two Tests for personal reasons is the most significant loss to hit either side in the buildup – a blow for the series, also – Harry Brook leaving the tour to attend to a similarly unspecified family matter is not insignificant. And that’s before we come to the visa issue that has left poor Shoaib Bashir having to fly home to rectify the hold-up – a situation that has left England understandably fuming.
Thankfully, the absence of Brook – who shone in the 3-0 victory in Pakistan last winter – alleviates one issue. One way to interpret this is that it opens the door for Ben Foakes to make a comeback, but it is more precise to say that Jonny Bairstow retains his position as a batsman. Foakes, a skilled wicketkeeper in the subcontinent, was expected to be part of the team regardless.
Stokes acknowledged Foakes as a unique player and believed his presence could potentially increase the team’s success by 2% or 3% in the series. He refrained from expressing any remorse regarding Bairstow’s underwhelming performance as a wicketkeeper in the Ashes.
Although Brook’s absence can be managed by a team that prioritizes aggressive batting from their top six players and now has Ollie Pope returning from a previous shoulder injury, the fact that Stokes cannot currently contribute as an all-rounder due to his knee surgery does create a disruption in the team’s equilibrium. As a result, Joe Root becomes a versatile player for the team, much like a Swiss Army knife in a camping kit, with his off-breaks expected to play a significant role in the upcoming matches.
Stokes asserted that he is physically ready to participate in the first Test, only two days away. However, it is still uncertain, as he recently underwent surgery to address a meniscus tear and remove a bone spur. He referred to the procedure as a “last resort.” The England captain appears noticeably slimmer compared to last year, having lost about 10kg in weight, which is partly due to his rehabilitation process. He mentioned that he is not likely to resume bowling until the summer. Stokes expressed his hope that this surgery will grant him a longer playing career. He also shared his desire to represent England for as long as possible, acknowledging that as he gets older, he has to work harder to maintain his performance.
Beyond how his plunderbats fare against Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, the ability of Stokes to conjure up 20 wickets of his own will be vital. As many have pointed out, much will depend not just on the captain’s resourcefulness but on the surfaces India prepare. Too flat, and England’s batters will be in clover; too extreme, and an otherwise callow-looking attack becomes more threatening.
At first glance, it seems like there is a significant difference in the spinners between India and England. India’s four spinners have a total of 849 Test wickets, while England’s top four have only claimed 131. However, Jack Leach holds 124 of these wickets but is currently recovering from a lower back stress fracture. The support spinners, Tom Hartley and Rehan Ahmed, may both be used if the pitch is suitable for spin, and the seamers will need to do more than just maintain control.
“We have selected the spinners that we believe will provide us with the greatest chance of winning here, despite their experience,” stated Stokes, refuting the simple facts of the matter. “At times, experience can be overly emphasized and overanalyzed.”
This is the type of simple and hopeful attitude that has supported the Stokes-McCullum era. However, it remains uncertain whether it will lead England to successfully obtain the trophy.