Unpredictable series leaves England and India seeking stability
The Oval Test is synonymous with summer’s end; one final hurrah before the leaves begin to fall and, along with settling any unfinished business, a chance for England’s cricketers to book their places on the plane for the winter tours.
Not this time. The fourth Test against India that starts on Thursday will not decide a series that is locked at 1‑1 and still has a finale in Manchester next week. As for selection, uncertainty still reigns over quarantine requirements for the Ashes and thus which players will make themselves available.
If there is one lesson from this series it is that plenty can change in a short space of time. Like a Dukes ball after leaving Jimmy Anderson’s fingertips, the balance of power has gone one way and then the other, with both batting lineups proving fragile and the cricket therefore compelling to watch.
India romped home at Lord’s with a seemingly ominous show of aggression, only for their flames to be doused at Headingley when England’s seamers relentlessly hunted the outside edge for a commanding innings victory. Both wins have gone against the toss and what follows, on a pitch that will start out green but could turn at the back end, is not exactly easy to call.
But then predictions have been a mug’s game all summer. Joe Root began the year handsomely but after the 1-0 defeat by New Zealand in June, when he made a top score of 42 from four innings, few would have had him down to top the batting rankings by September after three successive (and, frankly, sparkling) centuries.
Moeen Ali’s rise to the role of England vice-captain could not have been telegraphed, either. England appeared to have moved on and he was lighting up the Hundred instead. But the loss of Ben Stokes for a spell of mental recuperation resurrected Moeen’s red-ball career, with Jos Buttler’s paternity leave now making him Root’s preferred consigliere for this fourth Test.
Rory Burns was another option, this being the title-winning Surrey captain’s home ground, but with England’s win in Leeds built on staying calm and focused Moeen’s promotion stacks up. The 34‑year‑old’s dual roles at No 7 and spinner in a seam-dominated series also provide a distance from which to observe and advise.
Some things can be stated with confidence. Buttler’s absence means a winning team changes and, along with Jonny Bairstow gleefully retaking the gloves and moving to No 6, Ollie Pope returns at No 5. Pope had become skittish before a thigh injury paused his season and his scores were tailing off. The hope now is that this talented right‑hander has noticed Root’s rewards coming from stillness at the crease.
As one Surrey player comes in, another is likely to step down, with Sam Curran having struggled to make an impact and Chris Woakes, a more seasoned cricketer at 32, back fit after a year of misfortune. One second XI game for Warwickshire, followed by four overs in a T20 Blast quarter-final, means fingers will be crossed.
That said, Mark Wood is also back after a shoulder injury and along with his usual energy – at nets on Wednesday he was commentating on his batting as if he was Sid Waddell – a genuine pace option has emerged. If tempted by this, Root could ask Woakes to prepare instead for Old Trafford and move Craig Overton up to No 8.
The signs are that neither Ollie Robinson nor Anderson will be rested, something India may have forced had they offered greater resistance last Saturday. Instead, the tourists seem the ones uncertain over the readiness of their seamers. There are murmurs Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah are entering the “red zone” in terms of overs bowled and Ishant Sharma could be dropped after a wayward performance.
The expectation is that Ravichandran Ashwin will belatedly walk on from the wings with a fitness doubt over Ravindra Jadeda, while the all‑rounder Shardul Thakur could return after a hamstring injury. Prasidh Krishna, a 6ft 2in right-armer, has also been added to their main squad but is uncapped and untested.
Chiefly, India are in the market for runs from a misfiring middle order of Virat Kohli, Ajinya Rahane and Rishabh Pant. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Kohli took a leaf out of Root’s book on Wednesday, shouldering arms to his pre-match press conference and sending out the bowling coach, Bharat Arun, in his place.
It has certainly worked for Root this series, the 30-year-old having shifted his media duties to two days out in order to focus on personal preparation and the floodgates have opened. The question now is whether Kohli can rediscover the serene mastery of 2018 or the fourth-stump funk, also witnessed in 2014, continues.
This is the first time since 2016 that Kohli has sat below a teammate in the rankings, having dropped to No 6 behind Rohit Sharma, and India’s captain does not seem the type to stand for this. As with all the great players, you fancy the tide will turn.
But then this has been a hugely unpredictable summer of Test cricket that, like a financial adviser, has repeatedly reminded us past performance is no guarantee of future results.