Zak Crawley admits that England may need to be more proactive as a batting unit to overcome another spin-friendly surface in Ahmedabad this week, but he’s confident that a reversion to red-ball cricket may remove some of the challenges associated with last week’s pink-ball Test – particularly those posed by the left-arm spinner, Axar Patel.
Patel, who now has 18 wickets at 9.44 in his two-Test career, dismissed Crawley twice in the third Test, including with the first ball of England’s second innings, to set in motion a collapse to 81 all out and an eventual two-day defeat.
Nine of Patel’s 11 wickets were lbw or bowled – and 20 out of 30 in the whole match – as batsmen on both sides were consistently beaten for pace off the pitch, as if the shiny lacquer of the pink ball was helping it to skid through more quickly than a conventional red ball might have done.
And while Crawley expects few changes to the prevailing conditions at Ahmedabad – where anything other than an England win will secure India’s progression to the World Test Championship final – he believes that England must keep faith in the gameplans that earned them a memorable victory in the first Test in Chennai, even if they have then to adapt them as the match progresses.
“I think it will be a very similar pitch this week. Why wouldn’t it be?” Crawley said. “It wasn’t easy to score, for sure. But it was the same for both sides and they played very well. We had our chance, we batted first and started well, but unfortunately we didn’t play as well as we needed to.
“But if it’s the same pitch, I do think it will be slightly easier [this time],” he added. “I felt like the pink ball was a bit harder and therefore skidded on quite quickly, which is why both sides got so many wickets lbw and bowled.
“[Axar] still has that ball in his armoury for sure and he’ll still be a massive threat with that one, but it might not skid on with the same pace as the pink ball, in which case we don’t need to change too much.
“But if it looks like it’s going to be just as tricky, and it plays the same way with one skidding and one turning, then we may need to be more proactive, [otherwise] just play your natural game.”
Crawley himself provided some of England’s most proactive batting of the winter on the first morning of the third Test, as he raced to a 68-ball half-century with ten fours, before England lost their last eight wickets for 38 to be bowled out for 112 midway through the afternoon session.
And while he acknowledged that his strong start was made possible, in part, by an early diet of seam bowling, he said he would still take great confidence from that performance, particularly after making a top score of 13 in four innings on the Sri Lanka leg of the tour, prior to the wrist injury that caused him to miss the two Tests in Chennai.
“I had the best of it facing the seamers but it was nice to score some runs nonetheless,” he said. “In these conditions, you need to have a clear gameplan before going in there, and you also need a lot of luck. But just spending time in the middle, and getting a sighter for their bowlers, I feel like I’ve got better gameplans now, and I feel confident going into this game for sure.”
Patel’s left-arm approach, however, has been a consistent issue for Crawley all winter long. He was removed by left-armer Lasith Embuldeniya in all four of his innings in Sri Lanka, and has scored just 30 runs from the 73 balls he’s faced from both bowlers, for six times out.
But, just as Patel’s offspinning partner, R Ashwin, has proven a particular challenge for England’s left-handers – not least Ben Stokes, whom he has now dismissed on 11 occasions in Tests – Crawley dismissed the suggestion that he is unusually vulnerable to the challenge of left-arm spin.
“I don’t think it’s a big issue,” he said. “I’ve been bowled some good balls and faced a lot of left-arm spin. If I’m facing spin pretty much from both ends all the time, I’m going to get out to one of the spinners, unless I get 200 not out.
“You have to get out some way, and one of them is going to be an offspinner and the other a left-armer. And for a right-handed batsman, the left-armer is going to be more of a challenge.
“One ball is going to skid on and attack the stumps, and if I miss it I’m going to be out, whereas with Ashwin – unbelievable bowler as we all know – if one goes straight on, I’m going to miss it. Those are just the difficulties right-handers face and that’s why left-handers find it so hard against Ashwin.”
It was a measure of the challenge that England faced in Ahmedabad that even their most accomplished player of spin, Joe Root, struggled to assert himself, making scores of 17 and 19 after opening the series with a matchwinning 218 in Chennai.
Root was also England’s most effective bowler in the third Test, claiming the remarkable figures of 5 for 8 in 6.2 overs, but Crawley insisted that his captain was not feeling any burden of “carrying” his team-mates.
“He’s an unbelievable player, but he loves all that,” he said. “I don’t think he feels like he’s carrying us at all. He’s loving being the best player in our side, and one of the best in the world, and contributing with the ball and as captain.
“We all know how tough it’s been,” he added. “They’ve got great players in their side and they’ve struggled for runs as well, so it’s not like they’re scoring millions and we’re scoring none. It’s been a pretty low-scoring encounter, especially the last game. So, we’ve still got loads of confidence in our ability, and it’s all a learning curve.
“There’s definitely a way back [into the series]. We’re only one game down, we won a great first Test match. It’s going to require us to get a good first-innings lead, and that’s going to require us to bat very well. Our bowlers have been doing nicely, getting them out for 145, so if we can replicate that, then get a nice lead, that will put them under a lot of pressure.
“They would be very disappointed with a drawn series for sure, and we would be very happy with that. It’ll be unbelievable if we can pull off four out of six Test matches.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket