Ahmedabad calling, England can hope for a reset

Chennai over, one apiece. After India’s 317 run win in the second test it is an easy comment to say the momentum has shifted. An England camp in disarray, the poor handling of Moeen Ali’s return home and a misfiring top order all point to India tightening their grip on the Anthony de Mello trophy.

In Ahmedabad, however, England has cause for quiet confidence. The Sardar Patel Stadium, the world’s largest cricket venue, will witness a 50% capacity crowd, a paltry 55,000. Like any Indian stadium it will be an intimidating atmosphere but the home team’s record in Gujarat is not fortress others are.

Twelve test matches played, India have won four, drawn six and lost two. A 33.33% win rate is their third lowest outside Kolkata and Kampur. How they’ve lost may surprise you. In their debut test at the stadium in 1983 West Indies were their opponents, beating the home side by 138 runs. All twenty wickets came from their illustrious pace attack. As good as their bowlers are, England would do extremely well to repeat that.

Twenty-five years later, a similar story, nineteen wickets falling to a South African attack of Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis. An opening innings collapse of 76 sealed India’s fate that day, despite the side featuring Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Dhoni and captained by Kumble.

For England to win, this represents the first dilemma. In Archer, Anderson and Broad, England have a pace attack which, in the right conditions is up there with the very best. These aren’t those conditions, though the day-night pink ball may help their cause.

The West Indies attack of Holding and Marshall needs no introduction, with Wayne Daniel enjoying his best day as a test cricketer. In Steyn, Morkel and Ntini, South Africa had three bowlers who were clocked at 96, 92.5 and 97 mph respectively. Archer, Wood and Stone are there or there abouts and Broad can approach that, though looks destined to be rested again.  

Stone’s performance in the last test showed promise though England have shown a preference towards rotation. With Anderson due to play England’s pace attack will be dictated by their decisions on spinners. Bess and Leach both could play, though the more attacking choice would be just one gets the call.  Interestingly in both of India’s defeats their opponents selected a single spinner.

England’s strong strength in depth allows that aggressive opportunity, with concerns about the pacemen’s potential workload aided by three strike options likely to sit out.

Jofra Archer, if fully recovered, should play and provide that zip factor and the decision on who joins him would reduce to two. Chris Woakes provides dependability but in Mark Wood, this seems a match tailor-made to test his progress.  

The prospect of a long slog bowling is there but if England really see Wood as a genuine answer in Australia, what he can do in a potentially agreeable Ahmedabad will provide a key marker. If he isn’t selected you do start to question what his role in the squad is, other than as a back-up should the front four get injured.

Anderson, Archer, Wood, Leach or Bess, assisted by Stokes is a line-up capable of taking twenty wickets though whether they will be granted that opportunity will stem from how the batting line up performs. Whilst runs were leaked, England did bowl India out twice in Chennai. Their bowling figures so dour only when considered in the absence of the freedom with which India’s batsmen were able to play, especially in the second innings and already far ahead.

BatsmenLast 10 Test Innings Average (or less if limited caps)
Rory Burns22.50
Dom Sibley26.44
Zak Crawley45.20
Dan Lawrence21.71
Jonny Bairstow22.7 (46.33 since return)
Joe Root84.55
Ollie Pope31.11
Ben Stokes49.33
Ben Foakes33.14 (44.00 since return)

In this respect England must improve. Changes are inevitable with the top three all up for grabs. Rory Burns faces the threat of a fit-again Zak Crawley, with the latter likely to return despite his struggles in Sri Lanka. If Crawley opens Burns will make way though if he returns at three it will likely mean Jonny Bairstow will watch on from the stands. Dom Sibley showed enough in the first test 87 to protect his place for now.

In spite of his early promise in Sri Lanka Dan Lawrence looks set to miss out and will be replaced by one of Crawley or Bairstow. Retaining his place looks unlikely in a squad full of competition.

Rumours have abounded of Bairstow replacing Foakes but I can’t see it, there being enough trouble at the top of the order to give Bairstow a likely slot at three and if he doesn’t Foakes has done enough not to get dropped.

Root, Stokes and Pope are inevitable though the last will need to improve to cement his long-term spot, should Bairstow return to form.  

England have been here before and they have bounced back. It is within their power. The toss is important but even more crucial is how they react in light of it. In Chennai, their heads sunk, aided by a media keen to lambast the state of the pitch. It wasn’t good enough, but neither was England’s batting. In that respect there is enough to suggest that things will improve. If they do England’s bowlers are more than capable but expect a test that could go right until the fifth night.   

Featured image “Sarkhej Roza at Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India” by sandeepachetan.com is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An Indian summer in Sri Lanka, Bairstow’s big chance

Explosive, aggressive, fearless, at his best there are few better counter-attacking batsmen in world cricket than Jonny Bairstow. Twice an Ashes winner, ODI World Cup winner, there is a good chance come 2021 he may complete the set with a T20 World Cup title. It is a glittering resume, one the envy of many an international cricketer across the globe, but for Bairstow you can’t help but feel satisfaction is still lacking.

In 2016 only one cricketer in World Test Cricket scored more runs than Bairstow, with almost half of those runs coming at 7. Somewhat fittingly Joe Root scored 7 more that year. Just turned 27 with 38 caps to his name and an average of 41.27 the fiery Yorkshireman had firmly cemented his place as England’s wicketkeeper batsman, and been recognised with the same position in the ICC Test Team of the Year.

He had proven his worth on all types of pitch. 150 not out at Newlands, Stokes would get the plaudits, but Bairstow’s debut test century could not have been more emphatic. Two more big centuries on home pitches versus Sri Lanka, he scored runs against Pakistan before hitting three half centuries and other useful contributions in India when most of the rest of the batting line-up misfired.

In the heat of battle Bairstow refused to back down. His aggression became his trademark, always on the field, and occasionally and infamously off it. His ‘headbutt’ against Cameron Bancroft in a Walkabout pub was by all accounts nothing more than a strange but friendly greeting, a storm in a teacup, but one the Australian’s were all too keen to drag on.

His response, in a year where he was yet to score a test century, was typical. Peppered by the short ball, at the WACA Bairstow waited. 160-4 when he came to the crease, Starc, Hazelwood and Cummins were enjoying yet another day in a wicket-fuelled Australian summer. A 200 run partnership later, Malan and Bairstow had steadied the ship and put England within a good bowling performance from a pulling one back on foreign turf. Cutting, pulling, driving his way to his hundred, Bairstow’s back was against the wall but his response definitive.

Malan’s 140 would ultimately draw the plaudits, England’s subsequent blunt bowling attack the criticism, but it was Bairstow who had once again answered the critics in his most conclusive style.

Fast forward two centuries and three years later, Bairstow lies at a juncture. Out of the test side for a year, Buttler’s run of form towards the end of 2020 has left the wicketkeeper spot his, for now. Alongside him Sibley, Crawley and Root can all expect to play, with Dan Lawrence likely to get his test debut opening alongside Sibley. If he doesn’t a spot could open up as high as three with Crawley moved up to open.

In attack you would expect Broad, Anderson, Wood and Stone to contest two pace bowling spots with Curran or Woakes to bat at 8 and take the all rounder slot.

From the rest of the squad of sixteen, you’ll likely see two out of Moeen Ali, Dom Bess and Jack Leach form the basis of the spin attack, though it is not beyond the realms of possibility that all three could play and Woakes/Curran make way. That would leave one spot, potentially two up for grabs, likely as high as 3, 5 or 6. The candidates for this? Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow in a straight shootout.

Both have form in Sri Lanka, scoring centuries in the same series in late 2018, and both had good 2020s. Foakes averaged 75.66 in four Bob Willis trophy innings. Bairstow made a century versus Australia in his most recent 50 over performance, and 5 other half centuries through the limited over international calendar. The weight of Bairstow’s achievements in 2020 is perhaps the more heavy but at 27 Foakes has age on his side, and has waited his time.

Foakes may get the nod but Bairstow’s selection in the squad signals the door is still open. Whoever does play and takes their chance, will find opportunities come the summer. In Stokes the competition is immovable, but with Olly Pope the selectors will be keen to emphasise the number six spot must be earnt. In addition, one of the spinners will inevitably make way.

How we revisit this conversation in twelve months time will likely define Bairstow’s legacy. An international with patches of brilliance, or an England cricketer forcing his way into the debate for England’s all-time finest wicketkeeping batsman.

Featured image “Jonny Bairstow” by nic_r is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0