Can England’s no-consequences approach stop India from gunning for 4-1?


Big picture: Bowing out on a high

One way or another, England will be ending their tour of India on a high, as they head to the foothills of the Himalayas for the fifth and final Test in Dharamsala – the first of the Bazball era in which Ben Stokes’ men are not in the running for at least a share of the series.

It’s been a curiously fallow few days ahead of what, after two days in Ranchi, had looked like being the sharp end of this campaign. With their squad split between two bases in Bengaluru and Chandigarh, England have licked their wounds after their untimely unravelling in the fourth Test, where their tightest grip on any of the contests to date – including astonishing win in Hyderabad – was unpicked finger by finger in India’s most stirring display of supremacy yet.

From Akash Deep’s first-day fireworks to Dhruv Jurel’s twin displays of big-match cojones, via the inevitable onset of India’s spin supremacy in the decisive third innings, England’s fabled self-belief endured its most relentless examination of the tour. In his post-match remarks, Stokes even conceded that competing on equal terms had been nigh on “impossible” – perhaps the most defeatist sentiment to have passed his lips in his captaincy tenure.

And so, it’s back to Base Camp for the Bazball philosophy, whatever that may entail. In some ways, the circumstances of the fifth Test should suit England’s no-consequences approach – a shot to nothing in a match that truly does count for little more than pride, against an India team that might conceivably lack some of its intensity now that their stupendous home record has been preserved for another series.

That said, between the occasion of R Ashwin’s 100th Test, and the return to their ranks of the lethal Jasprit Bumrah, whose absence in Ranchi was arguably a major factor in England’s first-innings recovery, India will have all the weapons and incentive necessary to gun for a 4-1 series scoreline, the sort of margin witnessed on numerous past England tours, and which the visitors’ new approach had been designed to do away with.

As Stokes himself acknowledged, “3-2 sounds better than 3-1 or 4-1”, so another high-octane contest ought to be in prospect – notwithstanding the stirrings of a stomach bug within the England camp that caused both Shoaib Bashir and Mark Wood to be quarantined in their hotel rather than risk them mingling with the rest of the team during their final practice session.

No such concerns for India, who have grown into this series with poise and purpose, making light of the loss of Virat Kohli and latterly KL Rahul to forge an enviable spirit, studded with stars who look ready to carry the side into the coming years. The occasion of Ashwin’s 100th Test serves as a reminder of the enduring class that has underpinned their challenge, while Rohit Sharma’s authority as captain has arguably grown in the absence of his senior colleagues, not least in his gentle handling of the one anomaly in India’s otherwise settled line-up, Rajat Patidar.

“I like to call him a talent player,” Rohit said of Patidar on the eve of the match. “He’s lost some opportunities here, but that happens when you’re in the early stage of your career, you’re nervous, you’re trying to think about so many things. That is where the team has to back the individual and make sure there’s no pressure internally on him.” Had they not already been warned off from taking credit for India’s success, England might even suggest there’s an element of their own continuity of selection at play there too.

The series’ most thrilling subplot, however, has been the emergence of Yashasvi Jaiswal as India’s newest batting star. For all the confidence they carried into this series, England have not yet found an adequate response to the challenge he has thrown towards their emboldened style of play. His runs, and the manner in which he has made them, has truly been the difference between the teams. Another score of note for Jaiswal this week, and it will truly take something special to mitigate the gulf between the sides.

Form guide

India WWWLW (last five Tests, most recent first)
England LLLWW

In the spotlight: Rajat Patidar and Jonny Bairstow

Is this the last-chance saloon for the most precarious selection in India’s ranks? Previous regimes might have seen enough of Rajat Patidar already, after six innings of increasingly diminishing returns – 32 runs in a passable maiden knock in Visakhapatnam, then 31 all told in the remainder, including a brace of second-innings ducks in Rajkot and Ranchi. His arrival at the crease has consistently offered England hope of exerting a hold on India’s innings. And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Patidar was looking a class apart for India A against a strong England Lions XI, including with an astonishing 151 out of 227 in their unofficial Test in Ahmedabad, having rescued his team from a scoreline of 50 for 6. On that evidence, it’s a case of big-match nerves rather than any lack of Test class that has held him back so far, but he’ll need to reward the management’s faith soon.

For the second time this winter, Jonny Bairstow is due to bring up a century in Dharamsala, though not of the strictly batting variety. As with his 100th ODI cap during the World Cup, Bairstow’s Test caps milestone will be a source of immense pride for one of the more emotionally-driven players of recent vintage, but it comes also with the nagging sense that he’s nearing the end of his England journey. For all the unfathomable determination he has shown to get back to fitness after his horrific leg injury in September 2022, Bairstow’s returns on this trip have been awkwardly unfulfilled – five scores between 25 and 38, and an overall average of 21.25 in eight innings, speak of a player whose fires still burn bright but whose physicality is letting him down. And while it’s reductive to suggest that he always saves his best for when the doubters are lined up against him, it’s a seductive notion too. With Harry Brook waiting in the wings for the English summer, can Bairstow find one last burst of furious brilliance to ensure his 100th Test won’t be his last? The beauty of his career is that you wouldn’t ever bet against it.

Team news: England make solitary change

Jasprit Bumrah will be welcomed back to lead India’s attack alongside Mohammad Siraj, and with Rohit Sharma dropping a sizeable hint that India would field three seamers for this contest, the big decision comes down to a call between Akash Deep and the extra spinner Kuldeep Yadav. Deep proved himself worthy of further honours with his three-wicket burst on the first morning of his debut in Ranchi, but Kuldeep’s wristspin was instrumental in unpicking England’s resistance when the surface was at its flattest in the back-end of the contest.

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

Despite speculation that England would opt for three quicks on a more seam-friendly surface in Dharamsala, both Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley have been retained for the fifth Test, in Bashir’s case despite nursing a Moeen Ali-style cut on his spinning finger, which is hardly surprising given his 70-over workload across the two innings in Ranchi comprised more than a fifth of his previous first-class career. Ollie Robinson endured a bleak time with the ball in the same Test, apparently after tweaking his back during his spirited half-century, and makes way for the return of England’s point-of-difference paceman Mark Wood. James Anderson, two wickets shy of 700 in Tests, will play his fourth match in a row at the age of 41.

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 Tom Hartley, 9 Mark Wood, 10 Shoaib Bashir, 11 James Anderson

Pitch and conditions: Home far from home for England?

There’s a distinct chill in the air at 5000ft altitude, which would count as handy preparation for the opening rounds of the County Championship, if any of England’s incumbents were likely to be made available. Either way, Dharamsala is a long way removed from the heat and dust of Ranchi or Rajkot – in the last fixture at this venue, some three weeks ago, all 36 wickets fell to seam as Delhi beat Himachal Pradesh by 76 runs in the Ranji Trophy. Nevertheless, Stokes expects the surface to be full of runs, but some barer patches on a full length have persuaded England to retain their frontline spin options.

Stats and trivia: Milestones galore in prospect

  • Yashasvi Jaiswal is on course to set a new record for most runs by an Indian batter in a series against England. He begins the match on 655, level with Virat Kohli’s tally from the 2016-17 campaign.
  • James Anderson is two wickets away from 700 Test wickets. Only Muthiah Muralidaran (800) and Shane Warne (708) have taken more.
  • Stokes remains three short of 200 Test wickets, and on the cusp of being only the third allrounder after Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis to complete the double of 6000 runs and 200 wickets. Though he has not bowled in any of his previous seven Test appearances, he is close to a return after knee surgery.
  • Ravindra Jadeja is eight wickets away from becoming the seventh Indian to reach 300 Test wickets.
  • Quotes

    “I just don’t know what Bazball means. I haven’t seen wild swinging from anyone. England have played better cricket than they were here last time. But I still don’t know what Bazball means.”
    Rohit Sharma takes one last dig at England’s perceived style of play

    “I’ll be going out there, chewing my gum, puffing my chest out and trying to have a good time with the other ten blokes out there. Whatever the situation is, we’ll be going out there with smiles on our faces, like we have done in the whole series.”
    Jonny Bairstow prepares to savour the occasion of his 100th Test appearance

    Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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