That was the only time Jamie Overton looked nervous, after moving into the 90s in his debut Test. Eventually he fell for 97, got a bear hug from Jonny Bairstow and left to a standing ovation from the Headingley crowd. The newcomer was allowed to be nervous as he approached the moment of his cricketing life. Ninety-seven per cent of his innings, though, oozed boldness that ‘Bazball’ demands.
To paraphrase The Beatles, Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum took a sad song and made it better very quickly.
It has been a June to savour for the England cricket team and its band of long-suffering supporters. Coming into the three-Test series with one win in their last 17 attempts, one could argue that the only way left was up. And up they certainly went, in the space of a few weeks as the new dispensation got to work. Chasing fourth-innings targets between 275 and 300 are stiff asks in Test cricket, but the hosts devoured them in a manner that would have done many white-ball teams proud. It was a complete contrast to the dour and insipid style prevalent previously.
The mantra seems to be ‘foot to the floor’, even in the direst of situations, as the following examples will show.
Exhibit 1: A year ago at Lord’s, New Zealand had declared their second innings and set England a target of 273 in 75 overs on the final day. The hosts, with skipper Joe Root and head coach Chris Silverwood in charge, opted to play out for a boring draw instead.
At Trent Bridge, England’s fourth innings target against New Zealand was 299 in 72 overs on the final day of the second Test. With Ben Stokes and McCullum in the saddle, they romped home in 50 overs, winning by five wickets, as Bairstow got in the ‘zone’.
Exhibit 2: In the third Test at Headingley, England’s top order was at sea against Trent Boult’s swing-bowling masterclass. That first spell from the left-arm paceman would have rattled any top order and the hosts slumped to 17/3 and then 21/4, when Tim Southee removed Root with a beauty.
Bairstow and Stokes counter-attacked the New Zealand fast bowlers and even though the England captain perished trying to force the pace, his team didn’t shed its attacking intent. At 55/6, Overton paired up with Bairstow and a 241-run partnership followed, off just 274 balls. It was exhilarating cricket. And forget Bairstow’s back-to-back hundreds scored with a seemingly devil-may-care attitude, when a debutant can play in such fearless manner under pressure, he typifies a team’s positive culture shift.
It resulted in a 3-0 series whitewash of the reigning World Test champions as England chased down 296 in under 55 overs in a display of supreme confidence and gung-ho aggression.
India will face a new England at Edgbaston starting Friday. This England team doesn’t get bundled out in one session; doesn’t retreat in the face of opponents’ aggression. And India will carry their own problems to the pending fifth Test of the series that started last year and stood at 2-1 in favour of the tourists when it suffered a Covid-forced postponement.
Virat Kohli hasn’t scored an international century for two-and-a-half years now, averaging a shade over 30 in Tests during this period. For the first time in nearly five years, his career average has dropped below 50. Last year, when India toured England, Kohli was the team’s undisputed leader across formats. Much has changed since.
England, too, have a new captain in Stokes but his predecessor, Root, hasn’t lost his run-scoring mojo. He is the No. 1 Test batsman in the world, with a match-winning hundred in the first Test at Lord’s followed by another world-class offering at Trent Bridge. The Yorkshireman then anchored the fourth-innings chase as Bairstow went berserk again to seal a seven-wicket win on their home ground.
Billing the fifth Test as Kohli versus Root is fraught with risk, for the latter is operating on a different run-scoring stratosphere, while, Kohli, 33, is seemingly heading towards the twilight zone unless there’s a second wind.
Skipper Rohit Sharma has contracted Covid and may miss the Test. And more than the captaincy issue – Jasprit Bumrah is likely to stand in – it creates a serious batting void. Rohit was immense for India in England last year and although he had a poor IPL, he, along with Kohli, is the team’s batting royalty. Also, now India have lost both their first-choice openers. Shubman Gill is a very good replacement for KL Rahul, but Rohit’s absence could have an adverse effect even though Mayank Agarwal has been called up as cover.
Cheteshwar Pujara has returned to the Test fold by dint of his 720 runs in eight innings for Sussex, including four centuries. But he would still walk a tightrope, knowing that a failure at Edgbaston could be curtains for him. And nobody knows which Rishabh Pant would turn up. His sublimity is India’s asset. But at times, Pant can be messy as well.
Bowling hasn’t been India’s problem. Bumrah and company are guaranteed performers irrespective of conditions. But the team’s batting, especially the middle order when Kohli is not in form, doesn’t inspire confidence. Batting failures cost India the series in South Africa in the winter and in England this time, their challenge is steeper.
Last year, England looked defeatists, a batting line-up that got bullied by Bumrah, and when they went Down Under for the Ashes, they were battered by Pat Cummins’s troops. England have risen from the ashes, under Rob Key, the managing director of the country’s men’s cricket team, who showed the nous to hand over the Test team reins to McCullum, picking him out of the IPL. Stokes taking charge from Root was a formality and it has liberated the former captain.
England will take the confidence from their series win against the Kiwis to Edgbaston. Their bowlers are in form and James Anderson would be fresh after a well-earned rest in the third Test. Their batsmen are revelling in their new-found resolve and enterprise, though it remains to be seen whether the all-out attack gospel works against the Indians.
England are in the middle of their Test season. India are short of red-ball game time. The Indian broadcaster’s ‘ab hogi poori dhulai (time to complete the hammering)’ tagline sounds a little over-the-top.