A change of guard, the appointment of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum as the new captain and coach respectively, has ignited a dramatic difference in England’s approach to Test cricket. It’s therefore a potential whirlwind that a makeshift Indian XI, under a debutant, inexperienced helmsman Jasprit Bumrah, could encounter as they lock horns in a deciding, deferred final test of last summer’s unfinished series in the International Cricket Council’s prestigious World Test Championship (WTC).
The five-day format is the highest level of the game, simply because of the unequalled examination this enforces on a cricketer’s abilities in altering playing conditions and fluctuating match situations. It creates opportune moments to attack and defend in adherence with the founding fathers’ philosophy of an even contest between bat and ball.
Within the prescription, though, Christchurch-born Stokes and former Kiwi captain McCullum have contrived an explosive brand of willowy aggression, which stunningly white-washed reigning world champions New Zealand in a just concluded 3-Test engagement.
While there were unmistakable signs of a new positivity in Joe Root’s batting in the first Test, it was really in the second Test that Jonny Bairstow demonstrated a dynamic change of gear in a fourth innings run chase to convert an unlikely victory into an easy and emphatic win.
Incredibly, New Zealand lost a match wherein they amassed 553 in their 1st innings and which was then exhilaratingly chased down to within 14 runs by England.
However, it was in the final Test that the hosts underlined a cultural metamorphosis. Six wickets down for 55 runs in reply to the Black Caps’ 329 in the first outing, Bairstow thrillingly counter-attacked to not only dig his side out of the hole, but obtain an unexpected first innings lead. In so doing, he recorded consecutive Test innings of 136 with a Twenty20—esque strike rate of 147.82 and 162 off 157 balls. It was a brutal execution of a licence to kill granted by the McCullum-Stokes think-tank in which the latter, too, played a part.
So, how should a debilitated India forestall or countervail such ferocity, lest this is unleashed on them? Admittedly, there is more at stake for England – trailing as they are 1-2 in the series. Yet, the resurgent Englishmen in their current mind-set, given the slightest latitude, are likely to venture into imposing themselves in the manner they did against the New Zealanders.
At the same time, data indicates that pitches at the leafy locale of upmarket Edgbaston – a Test venue since 1902 – are more equitable towards batters and bowlers as compared to recent circumstances at Trent Bridge and Headingley. Facts also establish faster bowlers tend to flourish at the home of Warwickshire cricket.
In Warwickshire’s county championship match versus Lancashire in mid-June, quicker exponents predictably captured the bulk of wickets. Consequently, India’s pace battery should hold the key. Besides, Indian spinners’ track record is superior to anything New Zealand threw up or England left-armer Jack Leach might.
Four pacers and a spinner or three of the former and two of the other is in this case a conundrum. Horses for courses or your five best bowlers? It’s heart-breaking, though sometimes unavoidable, to exclude off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin – who bowled magnificently at Edgbaston four years ago – from the XI. One would, however, be tempted to consider Prasidh Krishna, given his extra pace and bounce.
Assaults of the kind Bairstow and Stokes exhibited at the expense of the Kiwis, can be combated two ways. If the wicket or atmosphere is seam, swing or spin friendly, the ball should be allowed to do the talking. If otherwise, then deception in the air – with velocity variation or dipping deliveries – and yorkers can come into play.
India – presently in third place in the qualifying table, with Australia and South Africa above them – have everything to play for to reach the WTC final. Indeed, India need to prevail at Edgbaston to keep their hopes of entering the last two stage alive. And avert defeat in a Test series in England for the first time since they won under Rahul Dravid in 2007.
There are chinks in England’s top order, which India ought to exploit. At the same time, the durability of India’s batting has been rather dented by the unavailability of captain Rohit Sharma and his deputy Kannaur Lokesh Rahul, not to mention the diminishing propensities of Virat Kohli, Hanuma Vihari yet to repay the faith placed on him and Shreyas Iyer being an unproven entity in red ball cricket in English conditions. And Indian batting’s bete noire and swing merchant James Anderson is likely to be back to lead England with the leather.
Thus, India’s ascendancy of last summer is distinctly a matter of the past. Over and above, McCullum, having played and coached extensively in the Indian Premier League, is shrewdly cognizant of Indian players’ strengths and weaknesses.
Historically, the bad news is India have lost six of the seven Tests they have played at this quite felicitous ground in the midlands of England. Only in 1986 did they enjoy the upper hand, before rain denied them a deserving triumph.
The good news is, India were confronted by similar statistical adversity 18 months ago at the Gabba, yet defied the past. This time, they would certainly be encouraged to repeat the feat by enthusiastic support from Indian-origin spectators likely to mushroom from nearby Leicester.
London-based Ashis Ray is a senior cricket broadcaster.