January 19th 2024: The 1st Cricket Test match of the 2024 series between India and England will commence on the eve of India’s Republic day. Finally, one will see a 5-match Test battle, one most cricket lovers will look forward to.
Test matches since 1932 between India and England have always had that element of competitive and emotional attachment to it. Initially for all Indians, it was to beat the English at their own game, one that the English team looked at as being superior in. Cricket for them was a way of life and the values that the sport brought about was how one approached it.
In 1952, India in Madras won their very Test match against England, however, the English side then was without some of their superstar players. It was in the 1961/62 series under the captaincy of Nari Contractor that India beat the English side led by Ted Dexter in a 5 Test match series at home by a 2-0 margin. A convincing victory finally over their renowned foes.
It was a gradual learning curve, thereafter, that Indian cricket went through to acquire a status of being one of the top sides in World cricket. Indian cricket has flourished immensely in the last 2 decades. The 2 Test Championship tournaments that the ICC have conducted had one common factor that being India as the finalist in both editions. Indian cricket presently has the firepower to be champions, however, the anxiety and the pressure of winning has resulted in them not attaining their final goal.
India last lost a Test series to Alastair Cook’s English side in 2012/13 and thereafter, they have never lost a Test series at home since then. Teams around the world have now identified the winning of a Test series in India as the “Final Frontier”, a citadel that seems difficult to capture.
This is precisely why the upcoming Test series between India and England has generated such an enormous amount of interest. The English side has initiated a new style and approach to Test cricket, “Bazball”. This is an aggressive way of playing the conventional form of the game, in which a positive, carefree and result-oriented mindset comes into play. England has been reasonably successful in its implementation; however, it has brought in a sense of appreciation from the spectators and the millions of cricket followers as well. This is what England plans to enforce this time around.
The England side of 2024 under one of the present-day greats of cricket, Ben Stokes, seems to be making every effort to prepare for the arduous cricket journey to India. Their side has 4 spinners and are presently camped in Abu Dhabi simulating the conditions that they will most likely face in India.
The famous English mind game has also taken its root. Ollie Pope, England’s’ vice captain’s comment, “We won’t complain if pitches in India spin right from the outset” and James Anderson’s one about England being compelled to open with 2 spinners are all amusing retorts to put the Indian administrators and players on the backfoot. This is a ploy well-orchestrated by them over time, wherein, the press and the present and former players play their part.
England, one feels, have made the cardinal error of a modern-day cricket teams tour. Rather than Abu Dhabi, the best way to get acclimatized for them would have been to play practice matches in India. The irony of it is their “England A” side and not them are presently playing a series against the ‘Indian A” side in India. Bowling, batting as well as fielding in Indian conditions is very difficult to replicate anywhere else in the world and one feels a 3-day arrival before a major Test series could be a detrimental factor in England’s quest to achieve success.
India, on the other hand, have already opened their playing hand as regards their strategy and approach in the initial 2 Test matches. The Indian squad has multiple spin options and just 2 front-line speedsters in Jasprit Bumrahand Mohammed Siraj. The inclusion of S. Bharat as a specialist wicketkeeper and with talk of him playing has a strong indication of a wicket that will assist spinners more than the pacers.
It takes one back to the immense skills that India’s greatest fast bowler, Kapil Dev, possessed, who in these conditions had batters striving for survival even on a slow spinners wicket.
Rohit Sharma, the Indian captain, after the victory against South Africa which finished in less than 2 days on an uneven pace bowlers wicket in Newlands Cricket ground in Cape Town said, that visiting teams should not complain when they are confronted with a spin friendly wicket in India. This statement from him made it quite clear of what teams should expect when they tour India.
The Indian team for the 1st Test match seems to be in place. Rohit Sharma and Yashasvi Jaiswal to open, the middle order of Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, and K.L. Rahul followed by Ravindra Jadeja, R. Ashwin and KS Bharat. The tail-enders would be Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav and Mohd. Siraj.
England on the other hand, feel they have ticked all the right boxes. They have Dinesh Karthik, a present Indian player to advise them and plenty of experience from their players playing in the IPL to fall back upon. Apart from that, they have a coach in Brendon Mccullum, who has been both a player and a coach for teams in the IPL. England, with such depth of knowledge, will be a handful, especially in a 5-match series.
The Test matches are not being played in the traditional centres of Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai. This, one feels, will bring in that extra bit of uncertainty.
Will England conquer the Final Frontier? A question that will definitely bring millions of eyeballs to follow.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former India cricketer. The views expressed are personal)