The tourists have questions to answer in the batting and bowling departments as they look to go 2-1 up in a perfectly-poised series and keep alive their hopes of a place in July’s World Test Championship Final.
Much remains unknown: this is the first Test at the newly-rebuilt Motera Stadium; England’s first with this pink ball (it is an SG, not Kookaburra or Dukes); and they could make as many as five changes. Captain Joe Root called them “great headaches to have”.
Through all this, one question rung around: in day-night Tests, who would be a batsman? Run-scoring is not impossible in day-night Tests — Alastair Cook made 243 in one and Pakistan’s Azhar Ali 302 in another — but the early history of these matches has been defined by the impact of the seamers, particularly at the “witching hour” as day becomes night.
Both these teams well know that the pink ball can do plenty. In England’s last day-nighter, they were bowled out for 58. In India’s, they were bowled out for 36. That was just three months ago, which at least means their players have recent experience of a day-night Test. England have not played one for three years, and half of their team are likely to have never been involved in one.
1st look at Cricket’s 🏏 largest stadium 🏟 110,000 capacity pretty impressive 🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/TvkPmti8y5
— Stuart Broad (@StuartBroad8) February 19, 2021
In keeping with the seam-bowling theme, Ben Stokes said yesterday that England’s quicks were “licking their lips” at the prospect of this Test, and you sense James Anderson will have had a little eye on this game for months. Anderson and Stokes will play, while Jofra Archer seems certain to return, too. Root (below) must decide whether to pair them with Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes (who will go home after this Test) or a second spinner, Dom Bess. Olly Stone and Mark Wood are longer shots.
India skipper Virat Kohli responded in kind, saying that he believes his team has “the best bowling attack in the world”. With Jasprit Bumrah fresh, Ishant Sharma playing his 100th Test and the possibility of the fit-again Umesh Yadav — who has a brilliant home record and takes his wickets at an average of 15.5 in day-night matches — returning, he might not be wrong.
The trouble for England’s batsmen is that is not even half the problem. Kohli promised a pitch that would spin, and Root says the surface looks drier every time he sees it. That will excite Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel and might force England into playing Bess, with Moeen Ali back home resting, when you sense they would rather wait until the Fourth Test to recall him.
So, a fearsome challenge awaits, whichever batsmen England choose. Dan Lawrence seems certain to miss out at No3 for Jonny Bairstow, while the fit-again Zak Crawley could come in for Rory Burns. Root admitted it had been a “tough tour” for England’s batsmen and accepted that facing Ashwin is tougher for left-handers, which could be bad news for Burns, who has a duck in each Test this series and has fallen three times to the great spinner.
All this with as many as 55,000 spectators cheering India on in the coliseum that is the remodelled Motera. “The crowd plays a massive role,” said Kohli. “[With all] their energy behind us, it puts a lot more pressure on the opposition.”
The series might be level and they would have bitten hands off to be in this position at the start of the month, but England are right up against it.