Series may be gone but England still have plenty to play for in final Test

<span>England’s Jimmy Anderson could become the first seam bowler to reach 700 wickets if he picks up two or more in the fifth Test against India.</span><span>Photograph: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty</span>
England’s Jimmy Anderson could become the first seam bowler to reach 700 wickets if he picks up two or more in the fifth Test against India.Photograph: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty

Monday in Dharamsala was a corker, bright sunshine reflecting off the snow-capped Himalayan peaks, the air crisp, and the streets of McLeod Ganj bustling not just with locals, Buddhist monks and tourists seeking spiritual enlightenment, but also the early arrivals for the fifth Test between India and England, which gets under way on Thursday.

England’s cricketers were among them, too, albeit not by design. While they are a team that likes to kick back between fixtures – their first break on tour was spent in Abu Dhabi, the second split between golf in Bengaluru and a resort hotel in Chandigarh – heavy rain over the weekend had left the facilities at HPCA Stadium unfit for outdoor practice.

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There are no concerns for the match at this stage, and a group of players and coaches led by Ben Stokes instead went running in the mountains in the morning before a number then went for a cooling dip in one of the nearby waterfalls – recovery, as elite athletes like to call it. Jimmy Anderson was among them, too, in what is a positive sign regarding the 41-year-old’s personal shot at history this week.

Anderson left the fourth Test in Ranchi with tightness in a quad muscle and still two wickets short of becoming just the third man – and the first seam bowler – to hit the 700 mark. Provided the weather plays ball – forecasts, like prices in the local shops, appear a starting point for negotiation – he could scarcely wish for a more photogenic setting to reach this particular summit, likewise Jonny Bairstow playing his 100th Test match.

But then all 14 remaining squad members on tour should be desperate to feature, and not simply to tell any future grandchildren they played a Test match in the home of the Dalai Lama. The series may have gone, while their second-last position in the World Test Championship ladder looks irretrievable, but to finish 4-1 down would only heighten the regret given the moments England have let slip in this series.

Some of India’s current contingent know all about this; a 4-1 defeat in England in 2018 not entirely reflective of the cricket they played. That said, the sense of “what if” back then was fuelled in part by Virat Kohli putting his ego to one side (his words), respecting local conditions, overcoming the threat of Anderson, and plundering 593 runs.

Truth be told, despite competing hard and seeing their rookie spinners outstrip expectations in India, none of England’s batters can quite say the same. Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett have provided some consistent starts at the top of the order, where facing the seamers offers scoring opportunities. But amid an overall struggle for the middle order – despite flatter pitches than expected – the openers remain the only ones to have scored more than 300 runs for the tourists.

Perhaps most disappointing in this regard – beyond Joe Root only just returning to form through last week’s unbeaten 122 – is Ollie Pope’s tally of 285 runs, given his tour started with that sublime 196 in Hyderabad. Though a highwire act by way of risk, it prompted Rahul Dravid, India’s head coach, to say he had never seen “a better exhibition of sweeping and reverse sweeping”. Root called it a new benchmark for visiting players in India.

That innings aside – in fact, including that innings – Pope’s tour has largely been one of skittish starts upon arrival at the crease. This trend was capped off in Ranchi last week when trapped lbw first ball by a superb slider from Ravichandran Ashwin that completed his first pair in Test cricket. Given Pope comes in at No 3, this is a concern.

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“Kevin Pietersen, Ricky Ponting, guys like that were all frenetic at the start,” said Brendon McCullum, the England head coach, when asked about this characteristic during the break. “He’s trying to be as calm as he can when he goes out there and there’s a period when he needs to grab information from the wicket and get the rhythm of how the game is going.

“ For him the key is to not have played his innings before he goes out there; just to be nice and calm, relaxed, be able to back himself in that situation. He’s aware of that – it’s ultimately what everyone is trying to do when they go out and play.”

As McCullum pointed out, Pope is not the type to let this consume him, having been a diligent sounding board for Stokes as his vice-captain and remained an athletic, adhesive presence under the helmet at short-leg. Perhaps, along with providing Anderson with the perfect backdrop, Dharamsala can help Pope the batter discover that inner peace.