After two months in the subcontinent, England’s Test cricketers are within touching distance of the departure lounge. Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jofra Archer and Mark Wood will stay on for a Twenty20 series that has seemingly taken priority with the selectors but, otherwise, the red-ball players will soon be home.
Such thoughts inevitably creep in during regular tours, let alone ones undertaken in the biosecure bubbles of the pandemic era. But they will need putting to one side with the fourth Test that starts on Thursday at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, scene of last week’s two-day affair with the slippery pink ball, very much a live one.
England’s victory in the first Test in Chennai feels like a distant memory after a couple of disorientating turns in the spin cycle but win this one and it secures a 2-2 series draw. Considering resources, and that every team to visit India since Alastair Cook’s side won in 2012 have ended up thwarted, it would be a serious feat. And after winning 2-0 in Sri Lanka, England’s Test winter would end very much in credit.
“The last week [of a tour] there is a part of you that wants to be with your loved ones but we know how important this game is, what an achievement it would be and what an opportunity we have,” said Joe Root after training on Tuesday. “That massively outweighs everything else and has our full focus for the next seven or eight days.
“It would be a phenomenal achievement from the players to have found a way in some very foreign and difficult conditions so it’s a great motivator for us.”
In an unusual turn of events, England will be cheered on by Australia’s cricketers. India must avoid defeat to make the final of the World Test Championship – otherwise Tim Paine’s men will meet their trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand in June. The points system has been mind-bending and the pandemic has scuppered a number of fixtures, yet the competition’s additional context should still be felt in the coming days.
To help out their Australian friends, England’s batsmen will need to have undergone a hard reset when it comes to facing the dual threat of Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel. The pair boast a combined 42 wickets in the series so while the switch back to the red SG ball may reduce the possibility of deliveries shooting through off the plastic lacquer, they were presenting problems before the day-night Test.
Since being rolled for scores of 112 and 81 in the third Test, England’s batsmen have had plenty of time to stew. Root ordered a complete break from cricket for a couple of days (albeit one with few distractions in the bubble) and since resuming training the message has been to become more positive in their approach.
“To have won six of our last eight Tests in Asia shows we have the tools and the ability to win in these conditions,” said the captain. “It is important we harness that and have it in the front of our mind, and be a bit braver and play with a bit more freedom.
“That doesn’t mean going out there and trying to slog it or be ultra-aggressive. It is not being scared of the conditions. It is embracing them for what they are. If we get the balance of that mindset right we’ll give ourselves a far better chance than last week.”
How England line up might yet hinge on a sickness bug in the camp, but there seems no compelling case to change numbers one to seven. The spare batsmen Rory Burns and Dan Lawrence were only recently dropped and though Bairstow registered a pair on his return, the much mucked-about Yorkshireman deserves the chance to atone. Ollie Pope has struggled also but he will not learn much by not playing.
Thereafter it comes down to the bowlers. India’s Ajinkya Rahane suggested a pitch similar to those in the second and third Tests – the home side are not interested in the draw if so – and it would be strange if Dom Bess did not return. England’s ill-judged seam attack barely broke sweat during the day-nighter, so who drops out will be chiefly tactical.
If this is Stuart Broad, who took pride from creating a couple of (dropped) chances during his six overs last week, it would mean England returning to the attack that prevailed in the first Test. The only other variable is if Olly Stone or Wood replaces Archer for the pace role but again there is no workload issue forcing a switch.
India have had less soul-searching to do but are guaranteed to make one change, with the fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah having left the camp for personal reasons. Mohammed Siraj played in the second Test and could return, although the slightly more hostile Umesh Yadav is fit again after a calf issue and, given an imposing home record, could be preferred.
England may feel jaded but it is worth remembering their opponents have not been exempt from bubble fatigue. Granted, there is a different mindset when 4,200 miles from home but after nine weeks in Australia, followed by only five nights sleeping in their own beds, India’s players know just as much about the walls of the hotel room closing in.
That said, be it through the scars inflicted by Ashwin and Patel or the form of Rohit Sharma with the bat, Virat Kohli’s men clearly have more going for them if conditions remain consistent with those of the previous two Tests. They also have a greater incentive, with Rahane, a vice-captain not prone to hyperbole, calling the World Test Championship the equal of the World Cup.
If that is the belief of the players more broadly, coupled with the extra frisson it has given this series finale, the concept is perhaps worth persisting with.