Spin Test Inevitable But Indian Juggernaut Should be England’s Biggest Challenge

As is now customary before the start of every India practice session, coach Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma walked to the middle to look at the pitch at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium on Tuesday. They spent a brief time discussing what they saw before moving on to the fielding drills. At the end of India’s session, Dravid had one final look at the pitch for the day before summoning the curator for another round of discussions.

“It [pitch] looks a good one. from what I’ve seen in a little bit. How quickly and how fast [it will spin], I’m not sure, but expected to spin a little bit certainly as the game goes on,” Dravid would later say at the press conference.

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During the build-up to the Australia series in 2023, the pitch was the focal point for everyone, at least for the travelling media; and the same is the case this time around. But the general mood is, that it is inevitable now – spinning tracks, call it raging turners if you may, now probably is the norm when you travel to India. Are India taking the home-field advantage? Yes, they definitely are. But is it an undue advantage? Definitely not!

However, as former England cricketer Nasser Hussain noted, a bit of spinning track is good, an out-and-out turner could backfire for India. During the Australia series, we saw that. After the shock of Nagpur and Delhi, Australia got the hang of it in Indore. The talks of the demons on the pitch ahead of the series opener in many ways played into the psyche of the Australians and they were undone by not the demons on the pitch, but by the beasts who bowled on it.

But England, so far, have been wary of falling into the trap. However, they do have one other thing to rely on – ‘Bazball’.

To put it simply, it’s batting aggressively to put pressure on the opposition, but from the start of the McCullum-Stokes Bazball era in 2022, this will be the first time the Poms are touring India for a Test series and if there is any place that can put to the test ‘Bazball’, it’s India.

Mark Wood, who could probably be the only pacer to feature in the England XI come January 25th, gave a bit of an insight into how England’s approach to the series is slightly different than what Australia’s was.

“It’s no good coming here and just rolling over and thinking the pitch will do all the work, or thinking ‘It’s going to be tough’ because the pitches are not what we’re used to,” Wood said during the press conference yesterday. “To find a way, that’ll be what we try and do in the games, we’ll adapt. We’ve got a captain that always wants to take the game forward, he isn’t going to sit back.”

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Australia were timid with their approach in the first two Tests and before they knew they were behind the 8-ball. England, by their admission, or proclamation, won’t be timid — but that could also backfire.

For now, the result of this series seems to be a foregone conclusion, such is India’s domineering run at home that now stands at 16 straight series wins dating back to 2013.

However, the last overseas team to win a series in India was England in 2012, when Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen out-batted India, while Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar outbowled the Indian spinners for a memorable 2-1 series win.

Pragyan Ojha was India’s leading spinner for India in that series while Harbhajan Singh was on his last legs as an international cricketer. Ravindra Jadeja made his debut in the Nagpur Test which would be the last Piyush Chawla would play in his three-match Test career. Ravichandran Ashwin was only one year into his Test career.

Cut to 2023, and both Jadeja and Ashwin are a force to reckon with. The pair has 765 wickets between them in just 163 matches.

On the other hand, England’s lead spinner is Jack Leach – who has not played any competitive cricket for roughly seven months. Rehan Ahmed is one Test old, while left-arm spinner Tom Hartley is most likely to get his debut cap in Hyderabad come the first Test, after playing a mere 20 First-Class games averaging 36.57.

But this is where the opportunity lies for England. Australia had brought with them four spinners (Nathan Lyon, Ashton Agar, Todd Murphy, Mitchell Swepson) and later added Matthew Kuhnemann when Agar and Swepson were withdrawn.

And Indian batters did have trouble facing up to the unknown commodities – after all, India do have a penchant for making debuts memorable. Just ask Lance Klusener, Jason Krejza, Lungi Ngidi, Brett Lee, Josh Hazlewood and Todd Murphy who picked a seven-for on debut.

Did you know, 14 bowlers on their Test debut against India have taken five-wicket hauls?

This is not to say that Hartley and Rehan are going to be a thorn in the Indian side, but the tendency to be undone by the newbies is probably the only weak link, to put it that way, in this Indian unit. Without Virat Kohli, the rock in the middle-order, Indians could be susceptible if exposed, but then again, Leach is not Lyon and neither is James Anderson that effective a bowler in these conditions.

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However, the last time Hyderabad hosted a Test match, in 2018, it was the pace and the reverse swing of Umesh Yadav that led to the Windies folding inside three days. The track with a black soil make-up could spring a surprise or two with some bounce in the early goings and Wood, if he indeed becomes the lone pacer in the ENG line-up, could spring a surprise.

One thing is certain, England are not going to hang back and wait and Dravid knows it. “There’s going to be a lot of punches created on both sides and I hope that we can get the ground running hard and maybe strike a few blows early on”.

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