Seven years ago, at the start of another Indian Test tour of England, another notable Test landmark was reached. It will be England’s 1000th Test at Edgbaston on Wednesday; at Lord’s in the first Test of the 2011 series, it was the 2000th Test all told.
Such landmarks can be trite, but every now and then they can have a galvanising effect too. That 2011 Test proved to be an epic, life-affirming affair, lit up by queues all down the Wellington Road on the final morning, as fans piled in for the chance to witness a grandstand finish, and maybe even (or not, as it transpired) a 100th hundred for the inimitable Sachin Tendulkar.
The ECB, and Edgbaston, can but pray that this week’s Test will be amplified by its additional layer of history. Ticket sales for the much of the series have been sluggish, undermined no doubt by an England team that may include three players – Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad – who have contributed to more than a tenth of that English Test history, but which is currently performing at a similar fraction of its potential.
In theory, everything this summer ought to have been building towards this climax. The logic of the India itinerary certainly implied that the Tests would be the biggest deal – with the T20Is and ODIs loaded into the top half of the tour before clearing the calendar for a full five-Test showdown. And yet, India chose to reduce their solitary warm-up at Chelmsford from four days to three, while England’s non-white-ball players have been hampered by a lack of Championship cricket in which to fine-tune their own preparations.
In particular, the new-ball veterans, Anderson and Broad, are about to be asked to go from 0 to 100 in double-quick time. Having both played a solitary county fixture in the whole of July, they are now embarking on an itinerary of five Tests in six weeks, an ask that even an arch-combatant such as Broad has admitted he may struggle to complete without factoring in rest and rotation.
It’s a state of affairs that will surely alarm the ECB, who have been banking on the windfalls from this bumper summer to replenish their coffers, and who must be wondering, if not India, then who can keep the crowds coming through the turnstiles for Test cricket?
That’s not to say, however, that the status of the series has been diminished before it has begun. The era of the Big Three was consigned to the ICC’s official history books some time ago, but the sentiments that drove that agenda continue to hold sway in on-field engagements. England v India has taken its time to catch up with India v Australia as one of Test cricket’s blue riband battles, and it hasn’t yet produced the sort of see-sawing contest that would lift it alongside the Ashes in the public’s affections. But in terms of spice and animosity, there’s history aplenty between these teams, and scope in the coming weeks for so many additional plotlines.
Virat Kohli himself gave short shrift to the notion that his team are favourites, but either way this is looking like India’s best-drilled squad for a tour of England since 2007, when Rahul Dravid’s team emerged as 1-0 victors in a three-Test series, having shed their previous reticence in a gripping tussle under Sourav Ganguly five years earlier.
The more recent trips in 2011 and 2014 showed promise in the early exchanges, not least at Lord’s four years ago when Ishant Sharma pushed Cook to the brink of resignation by sealing a remarkable win. But by the end of both series, the captain MS Dhoni had the air of a man who no longer needed the hassle as India’s shortcomings against the moving ball pushed him into reverse.
One thing you can be pretty sure of in 2018 – there will be no retreat under Kohli, a man on a mission to cement his own place as one of the sport’s all-time great cricketers. He has no material need to push himself any more than he already does, but like Tendulkar and Dravid before him, he recognises that Test cricket, even in its habitual state of flux, remains the format by which you book your place in the pantheon. If he can inspire a few of England’s own flatlining stars to match his resolve, we could yet be in for the classic that the format so desperately needs.
In the spotlight
James Anderson v Virat Kohli is England v India in microcosm. Two giants of the game, drawn together once more to add another chapter to a storied rivalry. It would be grossly simplistic to say that the winner of this duel will decide the fate of this Test, and ultimately the series, but no two men are more fundamental to the fortunes of their teams.
Kohli’s performance in England in 2014 – 134 runs in five Tests – remains a stain on his otherwise spotless world-class record, but his desire for retribution could not be more plain. Had it not been for an injury sustained at the IPL, he would have warmed up for this tour with a county stint with Surrey, but he’s had ample sighters in the course of India’s month-long build-up, including the limited-overs series, and no Indian captain since Ganguly has been more expressive in his desire for victory. His massive haul of 655 runs 109.16 on home soil paved the way for India’s 4-0 win in their last encounter with England in 2016-17.
Anderson turned 36 on Monday, and while age is but a number, it’s still a pretty large one for a fast bowler who has been around the block for his 540 wickets over the course of a 15-year career. The economy of his run-up, allied to the magic in his wrist, means that there are no questions about his enduring quality – in many respects he is better now than ever before – but the challenge of five Tests in six weeks will require careful management, especially given his recent history of shoulder trouble. Anderson defied injury to rush himself back for the latter stages of that 2016-17 tour – to no great avail, he claimed four wickets at 53.5 in the last three Tests. But that willingness to put himself back in the frame showed how fiercely his fires still burn, as did his rather churlish end-of-series comments about Kohli’s record in England. The subtext was clear, but whether he’ll find his usual prodigious swing in the midst of England’s heatwave is another matter.
Adil Rashid‘s recall to the Test squad spawned a chapter of Yorkshire in-fighting not seen since Geoff Boycott was in his pomp – and Boycott himself hasn’t been shy on the subject either – but he will now be making his first Test appearance since December 2016. A grassy deck and a slight easing in the Saharan heat of this most atypical of English summers dissuaded England from fielding two spinners at Edgbaston for the first time since 1993, although Moeen Ali might have been considered ahead of Dawid Malan as a batsman. After playing his part in the series leveller against Pakistan, Sam Curran’s left-arm line complements the veteran pairing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
England 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Keaton Jennings, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Dawid Malan, 5 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jos Buttler, 8 Adil Rashid, 9 Sam Curran, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson.
Kuldeep Yadav’s potential inclusion persuaded England to recruit a trio of club left-armers to replicate his unusual angles in the nets this week. But with R Ashwin a shoo-in, Ravi Jadeja’s established qualities are the likelier second-spin option if India decide to stick to their strengths rather than lean on the extra seamer in Mohammad Shami. Shikhar Dhawan’s place at the top of the order is under pressure following his pair at Essex last week. KL Rahul is itching for an opening, and might well open alongside Murali Vijay.
India 1 Shikhar Dhawan/KL Rahul, 2 Murali Vijay, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 7 R Ashwin, 8 Hardik Pandya, 9 Ravindra Jadeja/Mohammed Shami, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav
Pitch and conditions
It has taken some diligent input from the Edgbaston groundstaff – and several million litres of water – to keep their wicket from turning to a dustbowl in the midst of an improbable English heatwave. And they have succeeded against the odds, but presumably in keeping with their brief from the ECB, in producing a wicket that looks markedly similar to those from the 2015 Ashes and 2016 Pakistan series. And seamers dominated in both of those games.
Stats and Trivia
After playing each of his first ten Tests overseas, Rashid is set to make his home Test debut, and play for the first time as a solitary spinner.
Jos Buttler has been promoted to England’s vice-captain after just two matches of his Test comeback. He takes over from James Anderson, who in turn stepped up after Ben Stokes missed the Ashes.
India’s last visit to Edgbaston was one that they’d rather forget. Alastair Cook’s highest Test score of 294 was more than the visitors made in either innings, as they slumped to defeat by an innings and 242 runs.
“Looking at the surface, we’ve decided we only want to go with one spinner, and that’s going to be Adil. With the amount of right-handers in what we think is going to be India’s team, he gives us a very attacking option.” Joe Root explains the thinking as Rashid’s Test recall is confirmed.
“You need professionalism more than feeling like an underdog or starting as a favourite. That is something we want to do as a team: we want to be consistent and professional.” Virat Kohli is focussed only on on-field matters