Joe Root has called on his England players to leave behind any baggage from their struggles against spin and produce a “monumental” end to their Test winter despite preparations for Thursday’s finale in India having been hampered by sickness.
Sitting 2-1 down with one to play, the fourth Test in Ahmedabad presents the tourists with a chance to become the first team since 2012 to avoid a series defeat in India and would also deny their hosts a place in June’s World Test Championship final.
Doing so, however, involves performing a handbrake turn on the batting performances that have returned five successive totals under 200 – England’s worst run since 1888 – and overcoming Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel on another spinning track.
“Ultimately it is about not having any baggage going into this game,” said Root, who has led England to three wins this winter including a 2-0 victory in Sri Lanka. “[Winning] would be a monumental effort from this group of players.”
Asked about the prospect of a win sending Australia through to the World Test Championship final against New Zealand, Root said: “I wouldn’t see it as that. I would see it as us ending the series as a draw and having done something special in India.”
Since the chastening two-day defeat in last week’s pink-ball Test there has been illness to contend with in the England camp albeit the kind that can beset any tour, rather Covid-19 having penetrated the biosecure bubble.
A number of players have experienced diarrhoea, with the assistant coach Paul Collingwood the worst affected, although a full complement attended training at the Narendra Modi stadium.
Root said: “There’s been a little bit of stuff flying around. We’ll keep monitoring it. I don’t know exactly who’s been affected badly at this stage. It’s really important we try and give everyone the best chance of being available for selection.”
The prospect of further cases leaves the XI uncertain although Dom Bess is one player expected to return. The off-spinner was dropped for Moeen Ali in the second Test and then overlooked for a four-man seam attack in the third, only for Root to expose the error when claiming five for eight with his part-time off-breaks.
Root said: “If the pitch looks anything like the last one, he’ll be licking his lips at the opportunity. He is certainly in contention and he is a very skilful young player that is very ambitious and will be desperate if he gets his chance to make his mark.
“There is not a comparison between me and Dom, he is a far more talented bowler than me. He’s got 17 wickets this winter and definitely, if he is in the side, he is above me in the pecking order. It was nice to contribute last time but if we play two spinners they’ll be doing the bulk of the bowling.”
England’s main challenge is with the bat, however, as Zak Crawley is their only player to make a half-century in the two lost Tests. Root has ordered his side to adopt a fearless approach and expanded further on this.
He said: “Everyone’s idea of what fearless is is slightly different. Being fearless is not having that tentative mentality of being trapped on the crease or caught in two minds. It’s having that confidence to play the ball in front of you, not having the baggage from the previous delivery, not overthinking the pitch, trying to see things for what they are. And if you get an opportunity to score, you absolutely have to commit to it.
“That kind of mentality and attitude is really important on surfaces that are extreme and are spinning quite heavily. You need to be able to put pressure back on the bowlers
“It’s a fine line in batting – especially when it’s as extreme as it has been – of being confident and proactive and not reckless. That’s something that has been encouraged because I don’t want guys to be stood at the crease, scared and not have confidence in their own ability.”