England are in Ahmedabad with the series tied at 1-1 with two to play and a day-night Test to come that might favour their seamers – we don’t know how the pink ball will react to the floodlights, but if anyone’s going to get it moving it’s Jimmy Anderson. It will also get soft quicker and tends to go dead after 20 overs, which means Ravi Ashwin should get less bounce, rag and spin and the batsmen get a fraction more time to react to it.
If England’s seamers benefit from conditions Jasprit Bumrah will as well, but some of the advantages India had in the second Test might be nullified.
England are in a great position, but while the first two Tests in India have illustrated many of their strengths, they have also exposed their weaknesses. Most obviously, their reliance on Joe Root.
The captain is averaging 90.37 in eight innings in 2021, but of those who played the second Test with the exception of Ben Foakes, whose figure is skewed by his first-innings 42 not out, the next best is Ben Stokes with 28.75.
They really need another player to come to the party in these conditions, so it is a great time for Jonny Bairstow to return to the squad, a player with plenty of experience and proven ability against spin. The young batsmen have done well but I would parachute Bairstow in at No 3 and Dan Lawrence would step aside. Everything is fine when Root scores double-centuries, but when he doesn’t someone else needs to stand up.
The second Test, on a turning pitch, highlighted England’s issues with spin, both with bat and ball. Of the English spinners Jack Leach showed good control, but across the board there were too many full tosses and loose deliveries. India’s batsmen only had to stay patient because they knew a bad ball was coming and that makes it hard to build pressure.
Root has enough responsibility as the team’s captain and outstanding batsman, but he bowled well and might have to get through a few more overs until a more reliable second spinner is found.
Foakes’s excellence behind the stumps illustrated a real issue with England’s selection policy. The first three names I would put on any teamsheet would be my best batter, bowler and keeper, but England have stuck with their gameplan of wanting a keeper who is a batsman first and foremost.
Especially in Asia, as Foakes showed, a specialist can make a real difference – there was one take against Rishabh Pant, with the ball going down the leg side, ripping and turning off the pitch and going through the gate, that not many keepers in the world would have made look as easy as Foakes did. Plus his batting, particularly against spin, is a real bonus.
England change their batsmen and bowlers according to conditions and I hope in the future they will also be adaptable with their keeping selections, because Jos Buttler is not always the answer.
Foakes got his opportunity because Buttler left for a scheduled break before the limited-overs matches, an unexpected benefit of a good policy. Some people would say you should always pick your best side, but this is a time to recognise the importance of protecting players’ mental health and England have done a reasonable job of that. But they made a real mess of Moeen Ali’s departure, suggesting he was turning his back on his team in choosing to return to his family. To make that request to stay on with one day’s notice, of a man who had not seen his family for weeks and had recovered for Covid-19 in isolation, is unfair and to discuss his decision in public is worse still.
I was pretty livid on the day it all came out, but impressed by how Root and Chris Silverwood reacted to the furore. It is the sign of a good team when those in leadership positions are prepared to apologise.
India were dominant enough in the second Test to put talk about the wicket, which was way over the top, to bed. When the ball turns from over one it is hard to argue the team batting first are at a huge advantage. The big factor wasn’t the toss, it was that India had more batsmen who could play spin, had a clear plan and stuck with it. And it helped that Ashwin turned in a performance to put him up there with the greats. It was the third time Ashwin has scored a century and taken a five-fer in the same Test, a special accomplishment – the only other player who has done it more than twice is Ian Botham (who managed it five times).
What stood out was Ashwin’s adaptability: he said afterwards that he had barely played a sweep shot since he was 19, but decided that was the best way to counter Leach and in the few days between the first two Tests he worked on it, came out and made it a defining feature of his performance. I wasn’t surprised by his bowling, which on a wicket like that you would almost expect to be brilliant, but his batting showed his class.
Virat Kohli also adjusted his technique after his first-innings duck and played much tighter in the second, when he came out really fired up – if anything a little too much, and sometimes he let his standards slip. As a batter you know you can’t run diagonally across the wicket, and if you do it and get called out by an umpire you have to accept it humbly. Kohli’s reaction was too aggressive and someone needs to tell him to tone that down.
One thing that won’t be toned down is the crowd: they had a massive impact on India’s performance and in Ahmedabad, with up to 50,000 people in the stadium and the floodlights on, they could make the difference again – unless England can find a way to keep them quiet.