India vs England, round three: scores level, stakes high


Big picture: India’s young batters vs England’s young spinners

It feels like we’ve been here before. Scores are level. Expectation is high. An England player had visa issues. India’s No. 4 couldn’t make it. It’s late January 2024 all over again. What a time to be alive.

Ben Stokes is about to play his 100th Test match. R Ashwin will likely be taking his 500th Test wicket. James Anderson is in sight of 700. India’s dominance at home is under threat. Bazball is not just hype. The Apple Vision Pro is out making reality redundant. There are continuing advancements to make mind control possible. The Deadpool 3 trailer has dropped. What more could anyone ask for?

If you’re Sarfaraz Khan, then maybe a first ever India cap. The 26-year-old has worked all his life to become an international cricketer, collecting mind-boggling numbers over the course of recent domestic seasons, and is set to finally take that most coveted step up. As a middle-order batter in subcontinent conditions, he offers a lot of potential, which is the least that can be said about someone averaging and striking at 70 in first-class cricket.

It does, however, mean that India will be relying on a group of batters still only learning what life as a Test cricketer is like. Seriously, the only thing greener is on lunch menus or is 6’4″ tall and leading England’s spin attack. This battle between up-and-coming members of the hosts and up-and-coming members of their guests has been one of the more fascinating and unexpected subplots of this whole tour. Although in Rajkot, a couple of established stars might take back centre stage. India’s inexperience puts them on the back foot against the guile of James Anderson and the pace of Mark Wood.

Especially considering how they have been leaving runs on the board. Rahul Dravid has been telling India that they need to be more pragmatic. Stokes, though, doesn’t really look like he sets a lot of store in such things. He kept tossing the ball to Tom Hartley even as he was smashed all over the park, telling him everything was fine, keep at it. Both methods worked. Yashasvi Jaiswal benefited from a little restraint, scoring a double-century in an innings where no one else made more than 34. Hartley recovered from being hit for six first ball to become his team’s leading wicket-taker after two Tests.

A series that was supposed to be headlined by the likes of Virat Kohli and Joe Root and Ravindra Jadeja and Stokes himself is now following a very different narrative.

Form guide

India WLWLD (last five Test, most recent first)
England LWWDW

In the spotlight: Rohit Sharma and Joe Root

The 2021 series between these two teams offered a massive challenge to batters on both sides. Of 156 innings played, there were only 19 that went past fifty, and of those 19, there was one that stood out. Rohit Sharma walked out onto a dust bowl in Chennai and produced a knock that has become something of a blueprint for his opposition this time around, a hundred that was an ode to attacking instinct. He hasn’t been able to summon the same kind of otherworldly strokeplay this time – even though the pitches are much more amenable for batting – but there are three games still left and his spirits remain quite high. India will be relying on his strengths to guide them towards the kind of first-innings totals that can help them dictate terms.

Another high performer from 2021 – the top-scorer in fact – has more overs under his belt (64) than runs on the board (52). Joe Root swept India to the extremes that they had to go to in order to win that series three years ago, but right now, he isn’t even getting those starts that the experts would pick up on so often that it became sort of a personality trait. “You look up and all of a sudden Joe Root’s on 30 not out.” Jasprit Bumrah is a significant factor for things turning out this way. The head-to-head after two matches reads 1 run off 10 balls and two dismissals. Both men will be refreshed after a mid-series break, meaning this thing is just getting started.

Team news: Jadeja set to return, Jurel in line for debut

With Kohli unavailable, Shreyas Iyer left out and KL Rahul injured, India’s middle-order is a bit threadbare in terms of experience. Jadeja’s return should help there – he has a fine record in Rajkot, his home ground, and looks all but certain to play. The rest of the slack falls on a bunch of rookies who have shown a lot of promise at domestic level but now have to prove that they can cut it here too. There has also been a bit of focus on wicketkeeper KS Bharat’s output in front of the stumps, which brings Dhruv Jurel quite firmly into the picture.

India (probable) 1 Rohit Sharma (capt), 2 Yashasvi Jaiswal, 3 Shubman Gill, 4 Rajat Patidar, 5 Sarfaraz Khan, 6 Ravindra Jadeja, 7 Dhruv Jurel/KS Bharat (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Kuldeep Yadav, 10 Jasprit Bumrah, 11 Mohammed Siraj

England, who played the first two Tests with just one fast bowler, will go into this one with both Anderson and Wood. Their batting remains unchanged.

England: 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Ben Duckett, 3 Ollie Pope, 4 Joe Root, 5 Jonny Bairstow, 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Ben Foakes (wk), 8 Rehan Ahmed, 9 Tom Hartley, 10 Mark Wood, 11 James Anderson

Pitch and conditions: It’s cool and it’s flat

There are runs expected in Rajkot. The local boy Jadeja said the surface will start out flat and then take a little turn as natural wear and tear sets in. The weather has been quite cool in the lead-up to the Test – early 20C in the mornings, rising to low 30C in the afternoons – and is expected to be so for the duration of it as well, so that’s another good sign for the batters. Without a lot of sun, the pitch might not break up as quickly.

Stats and trivia

  • There are 210 people with Test double-centuries and 752 with Test five-fors. But only 34 have ever done both. Stokes is among this incredible group of allrounders, peppered with some fun outliers (Kraigg Brathwaite, Virender Sehwag and Jason Gillespie).
  • Since his debut back in January 2018, Bumrah has the best bowling average in Test cricket (20.19) of all bowlers with at least 100 wickets in this time.
  • England’s spinners have more wickets (33 vs 23) and a better average (34 vs 38) than India’s spinners at this point in the series, but that’s not entirely new. Ashwin and Jadeja have shown previously that they are capable of picking up their performances while other visiting teams have fallen away after bright starts.
  • Anderson is five wickets away from 700 in Tests and, from there, he will be eyeing Shane Warne’s tally of 708.
  • There is indication that India’s XI in Rajkot will include as many as two debutants, which doesn’t happen very often. They’ve had to dip that far into their bench only four times since 2013 and two of those were during another injury-hit series against Australia in 2020-21.
  • Quotes

    “Obviously I’m very excited because I’ve been playing with him for 12-13 years. To achieve this milestone is a really, really big thing, to complete 500 Test wickets. I’m very happy for him. I thought he would complete his 500 wickets in the first match, but it’s okay, whatever is written in destiny. He will complete it in Rajkot, in my hometown.”
    Ravindra Jadeja on Ashwin’s impending milestone

    Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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