The five Test series against India condensed into little more than six weeks will determine whether this is an annus horribilis or mirabilis for England. The drawn Test series against Pakistan was a disappointment although it was countered by ODI victories against Australia and India. But this is what will define England’s summer.
Both captains have their issues though it was hard to establish that as they trod a stately path through their obligatory press conferences on the eve of the match. Virat Kohli leads the No 1 ranked team in the world but he is forever asked about his (very modest) record in England and the disparity between his side’s home and away record, which is substantial.
The focus on Kohli’s previous output here and his struggles against Jimmy Anderson must be manna from heaven for all his other batsmen. On Tuesday he was serene, soft-spoken and mellow, when answering questions exclusively from Indian journalists. He spoke in generalities and his words were received as if he were a very senior politician or a minor deity.
The problem for Joe Root is that England have won only one of their past nine Test matches, the last one they played at Leeds. He naturally tends to regard that victory as the platform of a revival. This series will test the validity of that theory. We were assured that both sides were “in a good place”.
In reality the selection processes of both sides may indicate their state of mind just as clearly. England announced their side 22 hours before the start of the match which suggests a forthright, uncompromising attitude, though this is not necessarily confirmed by the names selected. At Edgbaston there was the opportunity to allow Root a wide variety of options, four pacemen and two spinners even before the captain considered himself (Root, remember, managed to polish off Lancashire’s lower order in the Roses match with remarkable speed last week – Adil Rashid could not have done it any quicker).
The surface at Edgbaston had changed hue by Tuesday. The pitch itself now has very little green grass visible; it looks brown, dry and reasonably hard unlike the outfield, which is verdant green, a source of angst, one surmises, to water boards and reverse swingers. With a weather forecast that predicts more sunshine and high temperatures, there is a good chance that spinners will have an impact on the game.
When explaining his chosen side Root said: “This team gives us great balance. It gives us a huge number of options. I feel it gives us the best chance of taking 20 wickets. That’s the thinking. It gives us great variety, different angles, different spin options and some world-class performers with the ball.”
Well, that sounds reassuring. The bold approach would have the pacemen doing most of the damage in the first innings with the spinners having an impact in the second. But to have the maximum number of options with the ball in this side Dawid Malan would have been replaced by Moeen Ali.
But Moeen, who has a fine Test record at the ground where he started his professional career, has been omitted and Rashid is the solitary specialist spinner (with due deference to Root). This means that there are just two changes from the side that beat Pakistan in Leeds.
Maybe they were uncomfortable about making more changes than that after such an overwhelming victory. If confidence really was high there was surely a strong case for playing Moeen. It is not obvious how much this weakens England’s batting lineup.
Admittedly Moeen has not scored many runs this summer – neither has Malan – but in his last Test against India he did score 190 runs in the match at Chennai in December 2016. One never quite knows what Moeen is going to do, which remains one of his charms. Without Malan, Moeen would have been a candidate to bat at four; so would Ben Stokes, who seems to have swayed towards becoming an old-fashioned blocker since his return. Or England could have drawn straws to establish the order from four to seven, which may not go down so well in the scientific 21st century.
The absence of Moeen makes Rashid’s role trickier. He has never played a Test in England; he has never been the solitary specialist spinner in the side. And he has never started in a Test match with the words “He’s a spoilt brat” from Geoffrey Boycott ringing in his ears.
Moeen has been Rashid’s mentor in recent times and it might have been helpful to have him in the side to help carry the spinning burden. Now Root has to bowl Rashid in the first innings, whether he likes it or not; that situation would have been eased with Moeen’s presence. This selection makes life more difficult for the returning leg-spinner.
Kohli was far less forthcoming about his side. In the recent past India have tended to play just one spinner in England and they could do the same on Wednesday with Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma supported by the all-rounder Hardik Pandya.
The unusually talented Kuldeep Yadav, the left-arm wrist-spinner, was included in the squad but it would be a surprise if he played. England have seven left-handers in their team, most of whom were neutered by the off-spinner Nathan Lyon in Australia, so Ravi Ashwin will surely play. Ravindra Jadeja skittled Afghanistan in his last Test and he knows how to bat. Two spinners, Ashwin and Jadeja, would seem to be a good idea for the tourists.