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Saturday, September 25, 2021

IND vs ENG 3rd Test: England’s game of thorns

Top-order woes, middle-order muddle, injury-strapped bowling attack, and absence of key personnel threatens England's comeback chances in the series against India

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty |
Updated: August 24, 2021 2:43:04 pm
IND vs ENG, Joe RootEngland's Joe Root bats during a nets session at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds, England, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, ahead of the 3rd Test cricket match between England and India. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

It changed in about five hours, through India’s tail-end resolve, aided by Joe Root’s inexplicable rigidity, and an England batting implosion that came on its heels. England’s summer could have been rosy, but it now runs the risk of being forgettable.

On the final day of the second Test at Lord’s, the hosts flirted with victory, when Rishabh Pant was dismissed and the tourists slumped to 194/7 in their second innings. A lead of 127 runs at the time and the world’s longest tail to follow, it was England’s game to lose. A defeat instead has put the side in a dungeon.

Back in April, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) abolished the national selector’s post, making the England team head coach Chris Silverwood all-powerful on selection matters. After the demoralising defeat at Lord’s that might have an extended repercussion, the focus shifted towards Silverwood, with reinforcements being the need of the hour. But going beyond his rallying cry to bounce back, the head coach had limited options – Dawid Malan for Dom Sibley.

Top order issues

Malan last played a Test in 2018. Over the last few years, the 34-year-old left-hander has had been franchise-hopping; from Punjab Kings to Hobart Hurricanes via Peshawar Zalmi and Comilla Warriors. This season, however, he has raised his game in first-class cricket and a 199 for Yorkshire against Sussex in June attested his improvement. Then again, in 15 Tests so far, Malan has scored just 724 runs at an average less than 28. Let alone Geoffrey Boycott or Graham Gooch, he is no Graeme Fowler even (Test average 35-plus). At the moment, though, England are pinning their hopes on the comeback man against an Indian pace attack that is as skilful and aggressive as it is relentless.

IND vs ENG England’s Joe Root smiles during a nets session at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds, England, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, ahead of the 3rd Test cricket match between England and India. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

“Dawid would obviously offer us a lot of experience in that top three. Not necessarily in Test cricket, but he has played a huge amount of international cricket now and dealt with pressure situations,” Root said at a press conference on Monday.

England’s top three has Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed also. While Burns’ run-scoring resembles the fickle English weather, Hameed looked completely undercooked on his Test return at Lord’s. He had a golden duck in the first innings, nervously poking inside the line of a straight half-volley from Mohammed Siraj. In the second innings, he grafted a 45-ball nine, riding on a dropped catch.

Middle-order blues

Jos Buttler is yet to crack the red-ball puzzle. He can be all imperious in limited-overs but go almost submissively mute in Tests. Despite 52 Tests, it appears he hasn’t figured this format yet. Most former England players drone on and on about how he needs to get more aggressive and not turn into an imposter in Tests but he has been unable to break free of his self-imposed shackles. Perhaps, had his second-innings effort, where he fought hard for 148 minutes turned into a match-saving knock, he might have turned the corner. Nevertheless, the situation in the series presents him with a chance to liberate himself and go for the broke. Will he take it? England need an aggressive Buttler, not an unsure plodder in the middle.

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Now, Buttler’s possible unavailability for the Ashes Down Under at the end of the year has become an important topic for discussion, superseding his indifferent form. The wicketkeeper-batsman has already pulled out of the rescheduled IPL, as he and his wife prepare for the birth of their second child. Root was asked about Buttler’s likely absence (in the final Test also). The skipper expressed his ignorance.

Moving on to Jonny Bairstow, although he no longer looks “uninterested”, the middle-order batsman has failed to make his good form count. He was the only batsman to offer support to Root in the first two Tests, scoring a half-century in the first innings at Lord’s. But when situations begged him to grab the game by the lapels, Bairstow fizzled. It has put great pressure on Root, who has warmed to the task admirably but if England can crumble like this with him contributing, one shudders to think the what-if scenario of his rare failure.

India vs England India’s Jasprit Bumrah, right, celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of England’s Joe Root caught by India’s Virat Kohli during the fifth day of the 2nd cricket test between England and India at Lord’s cricket ground in London, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Moeen Ali gave a good account of himself on his Test recall at Lord’s, oozing application in both innings. As an off-spinner, he is more than capable, which his nine-wicket match haul against India at Southampton three years ago would confirm. But Moeen is not a match-winner like Ben Stokes in the longest format. Some former England players wanted Root to send an SOS to his deputy after the Lord’s debacle. But the team management wants to give Stokes enough time for his mental health recovery. “There’s no pressure from me,” Root said.

Enforcer ruled out

Mark Wood wouldn’t be “fit to play” in the third Test, starting on Wednesday. The fast bowler picked up an injury when he dived to stop a boundary on the fourth day of the second Test. A “jarred right shoulder” ensued and although he bowled during India’s second innings with a heavily-strapped shoulder, Headingley has proved to be too tough an ask.

Wood was Root’s short-ball enforcer at Lord’s. Bereft of him, England will have to turn to either Saqib Mahmood or Craig Overton. “I feel like Saqib couldn’t be in a better place to potentially play Test cricket,” Root dropped a hint about his preferred choice. Mahmood, a 24-year-old fast bowler from Lancashire had been a standout performer in the ODI series against Pakistan. But he is yet to cut his teeth in Test cricket. Overton’s Test experience, too, is limited to only five matches.

Sam Curran’s form slump has added to England’s misery. India’s nemesis in 2018, the allrounder has scored 59 runs and taken one wicket, at an average of 171, in two Tests. Apart from the delivery that dismissed Virat Kohli at Lord’s, Curran has struggled to make a mark. His rhythm has been betraying him, forcing him to bowl rollers; he has hardly got the ball to swing back in. Curran is also having problems with bowling from around the wicket.

So yet again, England would be over-reliant on James Anderson who bowled 54.3 overs at Lord’s, playing with a dodgy quad. Unlike Eoin Morgan’s white-ball squad that operates like a well-oiled machine, Root’s red-ball brigade has been licking their wounds after being bullied by a marauding India.

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