Expect the unexpected as Joe Root’s England bid to keep the heat on India as the fourth test at the Oval gets underway on Thursday… and after a see-saw series so far, what next?
- England face India in the fourth Test at the Oval with the series tied at 1-1
- India won a dramatic second match at Lord’s before England won at Headingley
- Chris Woakes and Ollie Pope could both come back in to Joe Root’s side
- India captain Virat Kohli can ill-afford to let this series slip through his grasp
So, what happens next? What can possibly follow two tumultuous Tests which have demonstrated the very worst and very best of England in rapid succession.
It really did look as though that last-day capitulation at Lord’s, which made it seven Tests without a win for England, would leave damaging scars and inspire India to a convincing series win to follow their success in Australia.
But England then proved the theory of momentum in Test cricket is bunk with that extraordinary transformation at Headingley that now sees this marquee series tantalisingly poised ahead of Thursday’s fourth Test at the Oval and next week’s finale at Old Trafford.
Joe Root’s England will be looking to keep the heat on India in the fourth Test at the Oval
The hosts recovered from the second Test at Lord’s to win convincingly at Headingley
Modern Test cricket is becoming ever more volatile. So congested are itineraries and so lacking are players in any real preparation that results are more unpredictable and extreme.
But it is no less gripping and entertaining for that.
It certainly would be premature to think England are now on top when Virat Kohli and what remains a formidable India side will come out almost literally fighting in a game they cannot afford to lose.
But as much by accident as design, England do look a much better side now than the one humbled by world champions New Zealand earlier this season and then second best in the drawn first Test against India at Trent Bridge.
They look stronger for having Haseeb Hameed and Dawid Malan in the top three in place of two batsmen England had planned to take with them all the way to the Ashes, Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley.
They look stronger for the return of Moeen Ali, announced on Wednesday as Joe Root’s new vice-captain, to balance the side in the absence of the irreplaceable Ben Stokes.
And England look stronger for the changes they will make to a winning side on Thursday, one of them enforced with Ollie Pope set to replace Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes returning to Test cricket for the first time since his stellar 2020 in place of Sam Curran.
England should lose nothing in the keeping department, with Jonny Bairstow deservedly taking back the gloves from Buttler, while Pope should offer more with the bat than a man still struggling to replicate his white-ball dominance in the Test arena.
This is a big game for Pope if, as expected, he edges out Dan Lawrence for the No 5 slot. That hugely promising maiden century against South Africa at Port Elizabeth seems a long while ago now and he has been badly affected not just by injury but uncertainty over his technique and a frenetic presence at the crease.
But a 23-year-old who averages more than 50 in first-class cricket and in excess of a hundred at the Oval this season is too good to ignore any longer, even though Lawrence seems to have the better temperament, if not technique, at the highest level.
Woakes, meanwhile, has been both unlucky to have suffered so many setbacks since becoming England’s player of the year last season and also sorely missed. Curran has looked, as fourth seamer and No 8 in this series, neither one thing nor the other.
England could go further and rest Jimmy Anderson or Ollie Robinson, with games coming thick and fast, and bring back the extra pace of fit-again Mark Wood on what is usually a flat Oval pitch.
But that extra day-and-a-half off since Headingley seems to have reassured England that the 39-year-old Anderson and the inexperienced Robinson have enough fuel in the tank for two more Tests in two weeks.
Chris Woakes has been both unlucky to have had so many setbacks and also sorely missed
Moeen Ali was named England’s vice-captain for the fourth Test in the absence of Ben Stokes
It is right England have given Moeen extra responsibility this week ahead of the favourite for the vice-captain’s role, Surrey skipper Rory Burns on his home ground, even though it is likely to be a short-term appointment.
There was a demonstration of both Moeen’s quiet tactical acumen and the respect with which he is held by the team when Anderson asked his advice at mid-off in the very first over of what became a momentous third Test win.
Moeen said on Wednesday: ‘He just asked me if he was bowling a little too short and I said, “Just a little bit”. It was a bit scary because Jimmy’s got so many wickets and telling him to pitch it up wasn’t easy.
‘But next ball he pitched it up and KL Rahul nicked it. It was just him throwing ideas at me and me just giving my opinion.’
It is an opinion England trust, as captain Root, who was on Wednesday reinstated at the top of the ICC world batting rankings after his three hundreds in three Tests, confirmed.
‘Mo is a natural leader,’ said Root of the appointment. ‘He is someone the team gravitate towards for a number of reasons and one of them is the way he understands the game. I think he has a brilliant cricket brain.’
There was little sign on Wednesday of India’s leader Kohli, who ducked his usual captain’s media responsibilities. It is not unusual for India to do things their way but it might be a sign of pressure on a captain who has not made an international century in more than two years and can ill-afford to let this series slip from his grasp.
India, too, will be stronger for the return of Ravichandran Ashwin, bafflingly left out of the series so far but surely in line to return now in place of the misfiring Ishant Sharma.
India captain Virat Kohli ducked his usual pre-match responsibilities on Wednesday
There may also be a place for the swing of Shardul Thakur ahead of the aggression of Mohammed Siraj, which at least might calm India down a bit.
It is Kohli and India who are under the microscope now with England perhaps finally settling down and things falling into place for Root. Predicting any England Test result is a mug’s game but, if you insist, I think it is their series to lose now.
Just expect the unexpected all the way to the last day of the series in Manchester on September 14.
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