Here we go then, this is the contest that makes all the agonies and frustrations of recent months worthwhile. In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve got a treat in store. The world’s top-two ranked teams going head to head in a contest that, to judge by the ding-dong battle we’ve enjoyed so far this series, could yet be a full dress rehearsal for the T20 World Cup final in just over six months’ time.
The only pity is that there will be no crowd present to create the full bear-pit atmosphere that this contest deserves. There were 66,000 spectators present to watch India’s series-leveller in game two, before the gates were slammed shut once again due to Gujarat’s surge in Covid cases – and all the signs point to a similar arrangement when the ODIs begin in Pune next week. But in keeping with the impressive intensity that cricket at all levels has managed in this lock-down era, there will be no let-up on either side when the teams stride out to the middle on Saturday.
Eoin Morgan was granted his full-strength squad for this series, to the chagrin of those who believe that England’s prospects in last month’s Test series were compromised as a consequence. But he has consistently stressed the need for his team to learn their lessons fast before the mad schedule of the English summer pulls his star players in every direction. And so, while he would no doubt have been delighted to wrap up the series with a better showing in match four, it’s not simply a case of putting on a brave face when he says he is relishing this chance to road-test his troops in their highest-stakes contest since 2019.
After all, England have made it their business in recent years to embrace the expectation that comes with their front-running style of white-ball cricket. And while the circumstances are somewhat different, this contest carries with it the same sort of manufactured gravitas that England conferred on their fifth ODI against Australia at Old Trafford in 2018, when the chance was there to serve their greatest rivals a 5-0 series drubbing, and Jos Buttler dragged them over the line with a thrilling century in a one-wicket win. It’s not putting too fine a point on it to suggest that that chase, and the lessons learnt within it, were instrumental in England holding their nerve in the following years’ World Cup final.
As for Virat Kohli, the lessons and pointers that he too has gleaned in the past four games have been invaluable. England have won three out of the four tosses in the series to date – a significant advantage given the onset of dew under the floodlights. But Kohli’s consistent message, that he was unconcerned about his team having to do it the hard way, bore fruit on Thursday evening, when they put enough runs on the board to squeeze England until they squeaked in their mounting run-chase.
The manner in which India have won their two matches has been particularly instructive. On both occasions, it has been the devil-may-care exuberance of their rookies that has sparked the team into life, with Ishan Kishan‘s debut fifty in game two giving way to Suryakumar Yadav‘s scintillating 57 from 31 on Thursday. But neither has had a chance to come good in the same contest yet – and nor has Rishabh Pant, although with four scores between 21 and 30, and 102 runs from 79 balls all told, he doesn’t seem far away from cutting loose in his habitual fashion.
The concern once again for India has been elsewhere in their batting order. KL Rahul’s struggles just will not go away, and while he does have an IPL looming in which he can re-find his range, the manner in which England have gone for the jugular in the powerplay, with Jofra Archer and Mark Wood dovetailing with such violent intent, will be hard to replicate outside of contests against Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada at Delhi Capitals in the IPL.
Rohit Sharma, likewise, has not yet found his range, in spite of a first-ball six on Thursday – Archer has now bagged him three times in 15 balls in T20s, at a cost of ten runs. Shreyas Iyer has been an important source of mid-innings momentum, most notably in the two games when Kohli has been undone by Adil Rashid, but for a side that is actively targetting a fearless new approach to their batting, the feeling persists that they have at least one too many anchors in their current first-choice line-up.
In the bowling stakes, the two teams have subtly different problems. India remain wedded to their five-man attack, which offers no wriggle-room on a day when one of them gets taken for a journey – as it nearly happened on Thursday to Washington Sundar. But equally, that pressure to perform on a ball-by-ball basis can create some seriously hardened competitors. Hardik Pandya was the under-sung hero in match four, as he skidded through his four overs for 16 runs, while Shardul Thakur held his nerve at the death, just as Archer was threatening to reprise his IPL range-hitting. Sometimes, when you are walking a tight-rope, that imperative not to look down can be emboldening.
England have broader options, but rather less defined roles. Archer, Wood and Rashid are the clear backbones of their World Cup line-up, but with no second spinner – not even a part-time option such as Joe Root provided in 2016 – the less express seam of Sam Curran, Ben Stokes and Chris Jordan has proved a touch too hittable at key moments in this campaign. Curran’s indefinable status in the side epitomises England’s uncertainty. He bowled four overs for 22, including a wicket-maiden in the powerplay in game two, but just five for 45 as England’s sixth option in the rest of the series combined.
These are, however, fairly good problems to have in the final approach to a major tournament. Win or lose in the series decider, both England and India will emerge from these five games with their plans a touch more clear, and their hunches explored in an environment that they couldn’t have ascertained against less potent opponents. The groundwork for October will have been laid by both teams, come what may.
(Last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
This could be Dawid Malan’s moment of reckoning. England’s No.1-ranked T20I batsman has endured a series of untimely fallowness in India – 80 runs from 77 balls all told, with four scores between 14 and 24, and no real sense that he was about to cut loose before he was cut short. It doesn’t feel like an over-extrapolation to suggest that Morgan hasn’t ever rated Malan quite as highly as his remarkable record might deserve, but this is the sort of dress rehearsal that can make or break perceptions. More than anything, the skipper values big-game players, so a matchwinning hand on Saturday’s stage may yet ink his name among the must-haves for October. That said, the manner of Malan’s demises in this series have been revealing – his attempts to force the pace against the spinners have come unstuck in each of his last three outings, and if that’s a sign that he’s liable to get bogged down in the middle overs in India where previously he has skipped through the gears, then his card may already be marked.
Suryakumar Yadav’s maiden international innings was an utter joy to behold. As carefree as his Mumbai Indians’ team-mate Kishan in match two – and all the more valuable to his team in that it came in the first innings of the match, and effectively landed a blow against the head in this toss-and-dew dominated series. The raucousness of his opening blow, a Roy Fredericks-esque pull for six over fine leg off a fired-up Archer, was so timely for his team, for it showed he would not be cowed by the express pace of England’s quicks, and signalled a charge towards, first, their best powerplay total of the series, and ultimately the top innings score too. He admitted afterwards that he had been encouraged by Kohli to keep things simple and play as he has been doing so consistently at the IPL. If he can follow that showing up with a similarly unfettered display on Saturday, it’ll take something special from England to match it.
Rahul’s struggles got no better on Thursday – in fact, his 14 from 17 balls was arguably a worse contribution than another short sharp duck would have been. But having been backed to battle through his form slump by Kohli, it would be intriguing to see him get the heave-ho now, even though Kishan’s potential recovery from a groin niggle sends a challenge to India’s brains trust. If there is to be a change, then T Natarajan, and his line in pinpoint yorkers, could get a chance to bolster India’s bowling now that he has emerged from his quarantine period. Sundar had his moment in the second game, but his offspin landed squarely in the hitting arc of Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow on Thursday.
India (probable): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Ishan Kishan, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 Rishabh Pant (wk), 5 Shreyas Iyer, 6 Suryakumar Yadav, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Washington Sundar/T Natarajan, 9 Shardul Thakur, 10 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 11 Rahul Chahar
It’s hard to see England changing their formula right now (thanks for coming, Moeen Ali) although their surfeit of left-handers in the middle order did encounter a bit of a pile-up when Thakur got his wide cutters going towards the back-end of the innings. Could there be a temptation to mix up the batting order a touch? Stokes snuck in ahead of Morgan in match four and reaped the benefits of a longer lead-in with his best innings of the series, 46 from 23, but as suggested by Dinesh Karthik on Sky Sports, his natural fit in these conditions could be as high as No.3. Certainly, if he did grind along to a run-a-ball 20 in the early stages of his stay, he’s proven beyond any doubt that he would have the gears to go big.
England (probable): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jos Buttler (wk), 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Jonny Bairstow, 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Eoin Morgan (capt), 7 Sam Curran, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Mark Wood.
Pitch and conditions
The black-soiled surface for the last game proved to be the best batting pitch of the series, with enough carry off the deck to reward shots in both innings, although as Kohli acknowledged afterwards, the dew factor was a bigger consideration than ever in the closing overs of the game.
Stats and trivia
- One way or another, a lengthy unbeaten series record will come to an end tomorrow. England have won seven and drawn one of their last eight T20I series, dating back to their last tour of India in 2018.
- India, meanwhile, have won six and drawn one of their last seven T20I series, dating back to Australia’s victory in February 2019.
- Malan is still on course to break Babar Azam’s record for the fastest batsman to 1000 T20I runs – 26 innings. He needs another 65 in his next two knocks, having reached 935 from 23 to date.
- England have been fined 20 per cent of their match fees for a slow over-rate in the fourth T20I, a penalty that took into account the lengthy delays for two third-umpire reviews for catches by Malan and Rashid on the fine leg / third-man boundary.
- Both Archer and Wood have gone at less than a run a ball in the powerplay in this series so far. Archer has claimed two wickets in 48 balls, at a cost of 45 runs; Wood has picked up three in 30, while conceding 18 runs.
“I’m enjoying it a lot. Even when I’m playing in the IPL or domestic cricket, I bowl a lot of overs in the death or fourth, fifth or sixth over in the powerplay. So, I bowl a lot of overs where batsmen come hard at bowlers. Kind of getting used to it now.”
Shardul Thakur says he relishes the pressure of bowling the tough overs in a T20 contest
“We go into the next game with a huge amount of pressure on our shoulders as a team, because whoever wins that game wins the series. That’s great for us as a team, especially with a T20 World Cup coming up because the more pressure situations we get put into as a team the more I think we’ll benefit from it.”
Ben Stokes wants England to feel the heat as the World Cup draws ever closer.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket