India have unfinished business to complete when they meet England at Edgbaston in the fifth Test of a series that has lingered for almost a year. The contest resumes with India 2-1 ahead. Even a draw would give them the series. But the task may not be as simple as may have appeared even a month back.
In the past few weeks England, who had struggled badly in the five-day format over the preceding 18-20 months, pulled off a stunning 3-0 whitewash of New Zealand to emerge as arguably the most dangerous side in red-ball cricket.
Chasing scores of 250-plus in the fourth innings is never easy anywhere, especially in English conditions, but Ben Stokes and Co made light of this in all three Tests. In the second and third, in fact, they scored at a mind-boggling 5-plus runs an over to reach their target, leaving New Zealand beaten and battered and the cricket world agog at their sheer temerity.
The elevation of Ben Stokes as captain, replacing Joe Root, and appointment of Brendon McCullum as chief coach is widely perceived as the main reason in England’s transformation from a floundering side, lacking in ambition and self-belief, into a powerful side pulling off incredible wins.
Both Stokes and McCullum, naturally aggressive as players, had said before the series started that they believed in making Test cricket positive, interesting and result-oriented. This message had clearly percolated down the ranks if the approach of Jonny Bairstow, Ollie Pope, Zak Crawley and the redoubtable Joe Root among batsmen was any indication.
It wasn’t just the batsmen who flourished. Left arm spinner Jack Leach, like Bairstow on the verge of being dropped midway through the series, gave a remarkable twist to his shaky career picking up 13 wickets in the series, including 10 in the last Test. In the pace department, 23-year-old Mathew Potts showed fine swing an seam skills to support maestros Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Stokes, not bowling as many overs as he would earlier, showed that his wicket-taking ability is still intact.
By the end of the series, an England team which had looked terribly vulnerable and unconvincing for all of 2021, and particularly pathetic in the Ashes, had been transformed into a juggernaut, with skill and depth in batting and bowling, and a strong hunger for success that brooked no stopping.
This is the team an unsettled India will confront at Edgbaston.
India look terribly wobbly at the top as the two successful openers last year, Rohit Sharma and K L Rahul, will not be tandem in this match. Rahul, in fact, is not in the squad, having undergone surgery recently. Rohit is recovering from an attack of Covid which has put his participation in the Test in doubt. If he doesn’t play, it will be a double whammy.
Chief coach Rahul Dravid has said a call will be taken on Rohit on the morning of the match, which makes sense considering his stature as batsman as well as captain, and needed in both roles. But if Rohit does not recover in time, it leaves the Indian top order considerably weak.
Mind you, there is no dearth of batting talent in the squad. Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal (drafted in as cover for Rohit), were in England last year too, as was Cheteshwar Pujara who has fought his way back into the Test team after strong performances in county cricket. Though untested overseas, Shreyas Iyer had a blazing start to his Test career and holds out rich promise as does the stout-hearted Hanuma Vihari.
However, the more crucial figures in the current situation for India are Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant. Kohli was captain when India were in England last year. Since then, he’s given up the captaincy to concentrate on his batting, but the big scores have been elusive.
He had a decent outing in the warm-up match, but India need an innings of substance from the master-batsman – as much to thwart England as well as resurrect his career from the doldrums.
Pant’s high-risk game is not for the ultra-conservative or the weak-hearted. But when in the mood, he can demolish any attack, and he is perhaps the man England will fear most for his ability to turn a match on its head.
All-rounders Ravindra Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin add heft to the team in batting and bowling. It is unlikely both will be in the playing XI in English conditions, but offer splendid options to the team management as both as vastly experienced and combative cricketers.
India’s obvious strength is in the bowling, especially in the pace department headed by Jasprit Bumrah and including Mohamed Shami, Mohamed Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Prasidh Krishna. Along with two world class spinners, the problem for Dravid is o finding the best balance.
The most critical issue for India, of course, is who will lead in this vital match. If Rohit recovers, the matter is automatically resolved, but if he doesn’t who steps in?
Jasprit Bumrah is widely tipped to hold charge if Rohit does not play. It would be a great honour for the lanky fast bowler who will cross another major milestone in an international career that is just over five years old. However, this responsibility will surely add further pressure on India’s spearhead.
All told, India have a Herculean task to prevent England from squaring the series. sIt will need the players to be at their best