ANUstralias cricketers celebrated here late into the night on the outfield two years ago. They had taken a 2-1 lead over England, retained the Ashes and, in empty stands and beer in hand, gave a drawled rendition of True Blue by folk singer John Williamson.
Tim Paine, their captain, tried to cheer his players up for the ensuing fifth Test at the Oval, calling it their Grand Final in a nod to the other key codes at home. But what followed was the performance of a team that had experienced its moment a week earlier. England won, the series was tied 2-2 and Cricket Australia’s fly-on-the-wall documentary didn’t get the final bloom the editors had hoped for.
India is in the same scenario this week through lagging, but the psychology is different from Ashes cricket. For starters, the Pataudi Trophy is at stake for series played in England and the Anthony de Mello Trophy in India. Joe Roots is therefore holding the first after three consecutive home series wins and so, despite beating 3-1 in India this year, retention is still possible with victory in the fifth Test starting on Friday.
India didn’t come across as a side that had climbed their mountain with that 157-run victory over Oval on Monday. They became India’s second team since Kapil Devs’ triumphant journey in 1986 to score two Test wins on England soil, but Virat Kohli is a captain looking to seal the country’s fourth outright series win here, and a first since 2007 , to further enhance his legacy. If it hadn’t rained on the final day in Nottingham, it could have been by now.
Cristiano Ronaldos’ upcoming debut at the opposite Old Trafford on Saturday means that Kohli, perhaps for the first time in his recent career, is not the top athlete to see this weekend in Manchester. An almost two-year drought of centuries will hinder this perfectionist more. But even worse for him, a day out of the competition was what the latest positive Covid result among India’s support staff meant for the climax of their tour.
This came to light on Thursday morning and followed positive results for the head coach, Ravi Shastri, and two of his assistants on Sunday.
The players were locked in their hotel rooms, their optional training session was canceled and further PCR testing was performed. But by the evening the message came back that everyone had negative results.
Assuming this means a green light for the fifth test to go ahead, everyone has been vaccinated, but proximity to the multi-million dollar Indian Premier League is a complicating factor here both teams are expected to make changes.
India has a refreshed Mohammed Shami poised to replace a sailor, most likely Mohammed Siraj, after Jasprit Bumrah’s groundbreaking performance in London on Monday and also faces their latest decision over Ravichandran Ashwin.
The pitch at Old Trafford looked bare, slightly mottled 24 hours after the toss and is expected to spin. If so, Ashwin would be a logical move for Shardul Thakur, even if the all-rounder was unlucky not to be named Player of the Match at the Oval, but Ashwin’s absence so far means there are no guarantees. India must also decide whether Ajinkya Rahan’s loss of form should lead to a change in the middle order, with Hanuma Vihari and Suryakumar Yadav as alternatives.
Despite India having been in the UK since June when they lost the World Test Championship final to New Zealand, it’s hard not to see greater fatigue among the English players, not least because of new ball pair Jimmy Anderson and Ollie Robinson. With the field enticing them to play Jack Leach as second spinner alongside Moeen Ali, and Mark Wood already in the pipeline to replace Craig Overton, Robinson may finally shoot out after four games on the bounce.
If so, a three-seamer, two-spinner attack would put the responsibility on Anderson and Chris Woakes to provide the main wicket-taking threat in the first innings and then Moeen, Leach and Wood’s reverse swing come in the second . This will be asking a lot of Anderson, who has racked up 163.3 overs in the series, although Old Trafford won’t host a test match next year, it could be the 39-year-old’s last chance to grace his home in England white.
Another Lancashire cricketer to be seen (in theory at least, given his fleeting appearances) is Jos Buttler, who returns from paternity leave and will likely replace Jonny Bairstow.
Bairstow has looked good but half a century and four scores between 29 and 37 i.e. starts without going on a hint. England will favor the coming man in Ollie Pope after being top scorer with 81 in the Oval. Buttler, with an average of 28 this year, can also score something. But then Root, and maybe Rory Burns as the only other English centenarian this year, that goes for the entire top seven.
You have to go back to the Ashes of 2001 for the last time England lost a string of five tests at home and unless fortunes improve with the bat, or India’s true blue moment turns out to be last week, this is going to be another damning statistic of a summer with disappointing results.
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