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England must improve on Sri Lanka series to prevail in India

As England captain Joe Root posed with the Moose Cup, a buoyant smile filled his face. A hallmark of his early days in an England shirt, this excitable expression has been rarer in recent years with the burden of captaincy taking its toll.

It was thus a welcome sight for England fans to see their talisman so happy again, and Root had every right to be. It was a 2-0 series victory away from home, in which he achieved back-to-back centuries, 22 wickets from his spinners and consistency from his pace bowlers. Positives aplenty.

That said, Root’s exuberant beam perhaps belied some of the faults exhibited by his side during the series. Foremost among these was England’s batting vulnerability, with England’s Sheffield-born captain proving the only batsman able to consistently make significant runs against a mediocre attack. Aside from Jos Butler, who made 55 and an unbeaten 46 in the second test, question marks loom over all other English batsmen.

England’s frontline spin bowlers are equally a cause of concern. The 22 wickets they amassed together flatter the performances of Dom Bess and Jack Leach, who bowled a far too inconsistent line and length in both matches. For the most part, Sri Lankan rashness gifted these two their wickets.

England now face a much more capable opposition in the form of India, whose batsmen should not be expected to deliver any such gifts. India go into the four-test series as strong favourites on the back of a remarkable win in Australia and just one home series loss in ten years.

It could seem bizarre then that England selectors, confronted with such a challenge, have chosen to rest some of their best, with wicket keeper Jonny Bairstow being released from the squad alongside Mark Wood and Sam Curran before the first ball is bowled in Chennai this Thursday.

The decision, however, is justified. England will play an astonishing 17 test matches this year and also attempt to win the T20 World Cup in November. Such a busy schedule combined with the mentally draining nature of Covid-19 bubble life will add additional pressures on players. Player welfare is understandably a priority and rest and rotation will continue to feature.

It seems better to focus on the players who are playing than the ones who are not. On both sides. The return of opening batsman Rory Burns and superstar all-rounder Ben Stokes will bolster England’s batting line-up, giving England a plan B should Root falter. Root himself has an opportunity to cement his position among the ‘Big Four’ test batsmen.

India’s bowling attack will not make it easy for them. Jasprit Bumrah’s ungainly action will be relentless, incisive, and awkward to face. Another handful for England’s batsmen will be off spinner Ravi Ashwin, who frequently outsmarts his opponents with deceptive deliveries.

Jack Leach will have a key role to play in unlocking India’s predominantly right-handed batting line-up with his ability to spin the ball away from right handers. However, he must bowl fewer bad balls than he did in Sri Lanka, otherwise the quality among India’s batting lineup, powered by the likes of captain Virat Kholi and Shubman Gill, will find it all too easy to run up their run totals off him. Meanwhile, World Cup hero Jofra Archer’s extra pace and power could prove useful in unsettling the classy Indian lineup.

With their current form and vast talent pool, India will be very difficult to beat. But placed under the spotlight of incessant line and length bowling and patient batting they could prove more fallible than they seem. England are unlikely to win this series outright, but if they improve on their performance in Sri Lanka they can play well enough to return that youthful grin to Joe Root’s face.

Image: B. Minkoff via Wikimedia Commons