Despite going into the pink ball Test with four recognised seamers, England were bundled out twice inside two days as spin took 28 of the 30 wickets to fall
Joe Root and his batting unit have taken responsibility for the defeat, but now, with a drawn series still to play for, England must come up with a better game plan to nullify India’s attack
England off-spinner Dom Bess is expected to return for the final Test in Ahmedabad as another turning track is expected
AHMEDABAD, INDIA – England may be 2-1 down in the series after some disappointing batting performances, but Joe Root must focus his troops on the opportunity that lies ahead in the final Test of the winter.
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The least said about last week, the better. All the noise surrounding the pink ball Test was whether it would elevate England’s strengths and bring lavish swing to the subcontinent with the day-night setup allowing the ball to move under lights.
Sadly, England’s batting barely let the night sky take effect, with another dustbowl of a pitch laid in Ahmedabad. England’s frontline batsmen were totally bamboozled by the spin, and/or lack thereof, produced by Ravi Ashwin and particularly left-armer Axar Patel, who now has 18 wickets at an astounding average of 9.44 in his two Tests so far. The pronounced seam that the pink ball possesses meant some balls were turning square, and then the next went straight on with the arm. It was like a lottery, and England hadn’t bought a ticket.
With India’s two wins being so convincing, and coming in fairly similar circumstances (bundle England out for under 150, make sure one Indian batsman scores some runs, rinse and repeat) Joe Root‘s side must know exactly what will lie ahead of them in the final Test (mercifully with a red ball in hand this time). India’s ground staff will be producing another turning track, and it is up to the tourists to work out, and seek to replicate, how Rohit Sharma and Ashwin have managed to score runs on such a surface.
England’s sole bright spot of a gloomy two days last week was the form shown by the returning Zak Crawley, who managed a fluent half-century in the first innings before succumbing to the left-arm spin of Axar. Nine of Axar’s 11 wickets last week were either bowled or lbw, suggesting England must be more disciplined when facing deliveries that threaten their stumps – after all, when you strip all the complexities of cricket back, the primary job of a batsman in a Test match is to protect his wicket at all costs.
However, Crawley told ESPNCricinfo being more positive is the best way to go about facing India’s spinners. “If it [the pitch] 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.
“I think it will be a very similar pitch this week,” Crawley said. “Why wouldn’t it be? It wasn’t easy to score, for sure. But it was the same for both sides and they played very well. But if it’s the same pitch, I do think it will be slightly easier [this time]. 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.”
What England desperately do need to change is the volume of runs they are posting. Since England’s mammoth first innings total in Chennai, when they amassed 578, they have failed to pass 180 in five efforts, combining for just 669 runs in that time. Root’s performances remain vital for any England batting total, but he must be better supported by his top three who, if you look at second innings alone, have together made just 95 runs in three Tests. The foundations simply haven’t been made for England’s talented, stroke making middle order to capitalise and they end up being forced into a style of batting that doesn’t suit their strengths.
Talking of Root’s importance with the bat, something no England fan would’ve been expecting from their skipper was his starring role with the ball last week. The Yorkshireman’s part-time off-spin took 5-8 in India’s first innings, who collapsed from 98-2 to 145 all out. As much as it was a scintillating spell of bowling that briefly dragged his side back into the match, it did beg the question as to why England went in to the Test with Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Jofra Archer (who was the only England pacer to trouble the wickets column all match).
Root admitted to the press this week that England picked the wrong side in the third Test. “You look at the side for the last match: we got that wrong in terms of the way we selected the team – we read the pitch wrong. We looked at the conditions and how the ball had behaved and the previous pink ball Test in India and we got it wrong. We didn’t envisage it to spin as much.”
Root may have the benefit of hindsight this week, but he doesn’t have the benefit of many spin options left to play with. After dropping Dom Bess because of his inconsistency in Chennai, it meant England went with Moeen Ali, who hadn’t played Test cricket for 18 months. Moeen got some crucial wickets but didn’t give Root much control either, and was sent home before England boarded the plane to Ahmedabad because of the rotation policy surrounding the pressures that playing elite cricket during Covid brings.
Despite taking the likes of Mason Crane, Amar Virdi and Matt Parkinson to Sri Lanka who are all viable spin options with respectable county records (Virdi and Parkinson average around 25 with the ball in England), England do not consider any ready for the heat of the Test arena. Hampshire’s Crane flew home before England’s two Tests in Ahmedabad, whereas Surrey’s Virdi and Lancashire’s Parkinson are merely considered as ‘reserves’ for this trip.
It leaves England somewhat going back on their word for this fourth and final Test match, reverting back to off-spinner Bess despite deeming him unselectable after their victory in Chennai. Whether the selectors think Bess is consistent enough for Test cricket or not, his numbers do stack up. So far this year, the Devon-born Bess has taken 17 wickets at 22.75, and he has also been on the winning side each time he has lined up for England. In fact, England haven’t lost in the last eight Tests when Bess has played. The old phrase ‘it’s better to be lucky than good’ certainly rings true here.
Unsurprisingly, both Root and spin-bowling coach Jeetan Patel have spoken highly of Bess in the build up this week, as if to give him a boost to his confidence before lining up in a crucial Test match. “I think Dom’s pretty good, he’s in a very good state actually,” Patel told ESPNCricinfo.
“He knows that this last Test match is a big Test match for England: to go 2-2 in this series, through four Test matches, would be a fantastic effort. It’s fair to say he was a bit disappointed he wasn’t selected in that third Test that’s just gone, but the feeling was that the pink ball would react differently and it didn’t go the way we thought it would go.”
Root also underlined how important Bess could be for England in Ahmedabad if they want to be just the third touring side to win two Tests in India since 1984. “If the pitch is anything like the last one, of course Dom would be a fantastic option. His skill levels are far above mine. He will be very much looking forward to bowling on it. We’re definitely expecting this pitch to spin. That’s been a big part of our focus in training so we’re as prepared as we can be going into this game.”
England’s captain was equally keen to dampen down expectations of his own bowling despite the five-for he took at the same ground last week. “There is not a comparison between me and Dom: he is a far more talented bowler than me,” Root claimed. He’s got 17 wickets already this winter and definitely, if he is in the side, he is above me in the pecking order. It was nice to contribute last time, but if we play two spinners they’ll be doing the bulk of the bowling, they are far more skilled than I am.”
Wherever England’s skills lie, it would be an impressive accomplishment to finish this subcontinental tour by drawing a four-match Test series in India and notching four wins from six matches in total. For a side still developing and resting key players, it could be Root’s best achievement as England captain so far, but they must compete at a higher level this week to stand any chance.
“The progress we’ve made over the last couple of years has been really pleasing, especially away from home,” Root said. “It would be a phenomenal achievement from the players to have found a way in some very foreign and difficult conditions. So it’s a great motivator for us as a side and I’d be extremely proud of everyone involved if we managed to do that.”
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