By Will Jennings
As the increasingly bitter north-east chill begins to manifest itself in Durham, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are sat in the Indian heat, licking their lips and eagerly awaiting the morning of next Wednesday. The day marks the beginning of England’s five Test marathon in India, a series where their vulnerable batting line-up will receive its greatest examination yet and a series where a potential sub-continent indignity may be imminent. No wonder Trevor Bayliss and co are frantically making phone calls to Mumbai clubs in a desperate attempt for some last minute practice.
Fundamentally, England cannot play spin. This ineptitude and uniform sense of incompetence runs ubiquitously down their batting order, a notion delineated so palpably in Dhaka last weekend. The touring side let the talented Mehedi Hasan run wild, failing to adapt to the alien sub-continental conditions and subsequently enabling Bangladesh to win their first ever Test match. Whilst the scenes in the capital were stirring, one could not escape the painfulness of the viewing back home.
England need to learn fast. The menacing combination of the two Ravis – Ashwin and Jadeja – represent this batting order’s sternest test yet, bowlers who possess such impressive control whilst also having the ability to turn the ball considerably. Yes, personnel in this England team must change, but so must our players’ strategies and game plans against slow bowling.
If England are to stand any chance of competing in this relentless and physically demanding series, Gary Ballance must be jettisoned on the next plane home from Mumbai. England’s number four in Bangladesh so visibly lacks confidence and belief in his own game, a notion evidenced so conspicuously by his tame second innings dismissal in Dhaka. The structure of this batting line up must change.
Options exist. England have a stark choice concerning the promising Ben Duckett: either leave him as an opener or move him to number four or five. Haseeb Hameed still awaits his chance at the top of the order after impressing in a pre-series warm up game in Bangladesh, whilst Jos Buttler and Sam Billings are ready to slot into the middle order. All three players possess significantly greater competence against spin than Ballance.
Hameed deserves his chance. However, the dilemma with demoting Duckett is clear: England’s middle order would therefore contain the left-handed trio of Duckett, Ali and Stokes, in consequence lacking versatility and allowing the Indian spin-twins the opportunity to bowl in a rhythm. Rotation of strike and the presence of a right-hander – either Buttler or Billings – would substantially enhance England’s chances in this series.
Buttler possesses considerable experience in these conditions, playing an abundance of IPL cricket for the Mumbai Indians and thus injecting a renewed sense of dynamism and enterprise into this fragile middle order. His selection would also mean the gloves would be taken away from the error-prone – albeit developing – Jonny Bairstow. However, his lack of first-class matches this summer for Lancashire remains an issue.
Billings – and his selection is an unlikely one – would function as a polemical choice, playing only six one-day internationals for his country but nonetheless impressing. His 62 in the final ODI in Bangladesh was rampant with superb shot-selection against the spinners, propelling England to a brilliant victory in the series. In a country where ineptitude against spin is so epidemic, Billings represents a rare exception to this quintessentially English disease.
Owing to his quick-fire 56 in his final innings in Bangladesh, it looks like Duckett will keep his place at the top of the order with Cook. The 22 year-old does possess real promise, but the extent to which he can sustain run-scoring as an opener remains to be seen. Cook, whilst having an uncharacteristically poor series in Bangladesh, plays spin so well, at least providing this feeble batting line up with a reasonable sense of stability at the beginning of an innings.
Whilst batting remains the principal issue with this ominous task looming, England’s spin bowling itself requires analysis. All four of Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari struggled to find any real success in these unique conditions, thus presenting Cook with a significant problem in the sense that he has no strike-bowler to turn to on these spin-conducive pitches. Batty was England’s best spinner in Chittagong, and his exclusion in Dhaka was somewhat perplexing.
The 39 year-old Batty should play in Rajkot on Wednesday. Of all our slow bowlers, he provides the greatest control and accuracy whilst also having the ability to find turn and bounce. Ali and Rashid can spin the ball but lack the control of the Surrey captain, whilst Ansari had a mediocre debut last week. Nevertheless, Batty’s county team-mate would add variety into our attack with his left-arm action, whilst also strengthening the resistance of the team’s tail with the bat.
If England’s spinners do not improve and learn how to maximise the effect of these dusty pitches, Indian runs will be prolific. Despite the absence of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan in the home side’s batting line-up, the presence of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane in the middle order will be a sinister sight for bowlers.
Whatever England decide to do before the first Test in Rajkot, things need to change if they are to avoid the humiliation of a whitewash. Ballance must go. Given Duckett will probably retain his place, Buttler should come in at number seven, enabling the improving Bairstow to bat at four.
Techniques must also change. England batsmen in the sub-continent so frequently have a tendency to lunge forward to the spin, seeking to smother the ball rather than rocking back and playing it later. With men round the bat inevitable, such a strategy could have catastrophic ramifications.
This England team will be nervous. Defeat in Dhaka will surely be dominating their mentalities as this threatening first Test beckons. Whether or not they will improve is yet to be seen. One thing is for certain, however: Ashwin and Jadeja are ready and waiting.