The caravan moves to the Oval with intrigue surrounding both teams
That Headingley juju, eh? England could try to bottle it, though they can barely control it themselves. But there’s no doubting some Yorkshire magic rubbed off on Joe Root‘s team during the third Test, and just in the nick of time. A dismal run of six home Tests without a victory – for precedent, you had to go all the way back to the dark ages (or 1989-90, to be specific) – came to an end in spectacular style. Now the question is whether it will be a turning point for the series or an isolated blip on the readout.
The Leeds Test itself began with a significant anomaly: Virat Kohli winning the toss. Whether his call to bat was objectively any worse than Root’s decision to bowl at Lord’s (where India ended the first day on 276 for 3, remember) is academic, but India will quickly have to face up to the repercussions of 78 all out – much as they did after being blown away for 36 in Adelaide last year. Never mind that India have by and large had the edge on England in the series so far, can they push past the doubts that will now begin to crowd in. Can they ignore the whispers about how their previous two tours of England began competitively only to end in one-sided scorelines?
The advantage of such a hammering, perhaps, is that it can quickly be consigned to history. Root’s magnificence aside, India have two of the leading run-scorers in the series in openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul, while a second-innings 91 at Headingley by Cheteshwar Pujara – albeit that it benefited from some charitable donations by England – puts him fourth. And despite Kohli’s apparent struggles, the data suggests his form is as much down to bad luck as a lack of control. When the tide turns, a deluge may follow.
If India do make changes, it will likely reflect the flatter conditions expected at The Oval, as well as the usual wear and tear of a five-Test series. It is a mark of their great strength in depth that R Ashwin remains on the fringes of selection, despite being ranked the ICC’s No. 2 Test bowler in the world.
England, nevertheless, will return south rejuvenated. After a summer in which the fates have taken a hammer to much of their careful planning around the Test side, Root and Chris Silverwood were offered a glimpse of something rising from the wreckage. James Anderson may have provided the initial spark, but thereafter it was the nagging lines and high-armed angles provided Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton that beat out a victory tattoo. England’s newly formed opening partnership put on a rare century stand, before Dawid Malan hinted at a fruitful second coming at No. 3.
Although they will be without Jos Buttler, with his wife due to give birth, the return of Chris Woakes – so effective in these conditions and England’s player of the summer in 2020 – should give Root another reason to be cheerful. The Oval is often the scene of sunsets and farewells, but with the series set to conclude Manchester the week after, both teams go into this match knowing not to look too far ahead.
(last five completed matches; most recent first) England: WLDLD India: LWDLW
Players to watch
Where to begin with the Jonny Bairstow story? Let’s stick to recent history. Restored to the Test side in January, for the first time in more than a year, Bairstow impressed as a specialist batter without making a defining score in Sri Lanka, then ended the India tour with three ducks in four innings (having flown home for some pre-agreed rest in between). But England haven’t had enough good alternatives to definitively move on, and now, another twist has given him the gloves once again. His career average while keeping is still significantly higher (37.85 compared to 27.41) and, with Buttler’s Test future uncertain, there’s no doubt Bairstow will be aiming to prove England have done the right thing in going back to an old flame.
It feels like the spotlight rarely leaves Rishabh Pant. Either he is carving out history at the Gabba, or reverse-ramping Anderson over the slip cordon in Ahmedabad, or he is being questioned for his keeping (less of that these days) and shot selection. His displays against England in India earlier in the year helped the home side turn the screw ruthlessly, but an average of 17.40 in the current series (rising to 18.85 if you include the World Test Championship final) tells of his struggle in English conditions; in particular, the height and control of Robinson has caused him problems, with Pant falling to the rookie four times out of five so far. It was at The Oval in 2018 that the 20-year-old Pant announced himself, with the first hundred in England by an India wicketkeeper. A return to form on the same ground would be timely.
England will have to change a winning team, after Buttler was omitted from the squad due to the impending arrival of his second child – Bairstow will retake the gloves for the first time since the 2019 Ashes and Ollie Pope (who averages 100.71 in first-class cricket at The Oval) looks favourite to come into the middle order ahead of Dan Lawrence. Chris Woakes is also set for a first Test appearance since August 2020, most likely as a direct replacement for Sam Curran in the allrounder spot.
England (probable): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Haseeb Hameed, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ollie Pope, 6 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Craig Overton, 10 Ollie Robinson, 11 James Anderson
India have plenty of selection posers to consider after defeat at Headingley. Kohli is keen to trust the “template” of four quicks but The Oval is perhaps the ideal ground in England on which to go with their strength and deploy two spinners, Ashwin having already turned out there once this summer for Surrey. Bharat Arun, the bowling coach, said that Ravindra Jadeja was fit despite going for a scan in Leeds, but it might be a case of either/or once again, with Shardul Thakur in contention to stiffen the batting as a fourth seamer. Ishant Sharma’s fitness was being monitored at training and he seems most likely to miss out, with Prasidh Krishna officially added to the squad as cover. Umesh Yadav could also come into contention in an effort to manage workloads.
Never mind the urban jungle, Kennington is usually a hospitable environment for batting’s big beasts. The last time England and India played at the ground, in 2018, Alastair Cook signed off from Test cricket with a crowd-pleasing 147, while there were also hundreds for Root, Rahul and Pant. But spin could also play a significant part, as evidenced by Surrey’s last Championship game at The Oval, back in July: Somerset, the visitors, made 429 in the first innings before being bowled out for 69 second time around, Ashwin taking 6 for 27 in a one-off county appearance. The forecast is clear for all five days, with temperatures rising over the weekend.
Root has moved back to No. 1 in the ICC batting rankings for the first time since 2015. With 1398 runs in 2021 so far, he needs 84 to pass Michael Vaughan’s England record for Test runs in a calendar year.
Moeen Ali, named England’s vice-captain in Buttler’s absence, needs one wicket to go past Jim Laker and seven to become only the second English spinner to 200 in Tests.
If he plays, Ashwin can close in on Harbhajan Singh as India’s third-highest wicket-taker – with 413, he is four wickets behind.
India have not won at The Oval since their maiden Test victory in England, back in 1971. Since then, they have drawn five and lost three in south London.
“Now is when the hard work really starts. We’ve got to look to go even further, dig a little deeper, and really start almost to go through the gears as the series goes on.” Root knows England need to back up their victory at Headingley
“It depends on the conditions, on the wicket. Ashwin no doubt is probably one of the best bowlers we have, it’s unfortunate he hasn’t played so far. But if there is an opportunity and we feel he is going to fit into the scheme of things, they will definitely be bowling in tandem.” Arun on the prospects of Jadeja and Ashwin playing in the same XI
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick