England must learn from India’s win in Australia if they hope to prosper

Cheteshwar Pujara will hold the home side’s batting together while their pace-bowling options are as diverse as their spinners.

est tours of India are daunting. The conditions, the unfamiliarity, the intensity of interest. More daunting just after an India team missing 10 first-choice players has won a Test series in Australia, the other toughest mission in world cricket. With England having arrived for four Tests in Chennai and Ahmedabad, what can India’s last result warn them to look out for?

Pujara will bat forever

When India won in Australia in 2018‑19, Cheteshwar Pujara made three centuries in four Tests to be the batting core. When India won two years later, he looked out of form. Lots of false shots to Nathan Lyon’s spin, edges into the cordon from pace, repeatedly hit by the short ball, and barely half as many runs.

And yet, he still batted more time and more deliveries than anyone: nearly 23 hours at the crease for 928 balls. The Australians weren’t worried because he wasn’t scoring, but he allowed others to score around him. Pujara’s danger is so stealthy that you may not recognise it exists. You’re gone before you know it. The problem is, knowing about the hazard still won’t help unless you’ve got a solution.

Don’t live your life for spin

Teams travelling to India get carried away. They think of spin squadrons like Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, and think they need to pack their own team. That doesn’t help unless your spinners are up to the job. England have Dom Bess and Jack Leach, modest county types who do well on the Ciderabad pitches of Somerset, and Moeen Ali who hasn’t played a Test since he looked a busted bowler in the first Ashes match of 2019.

All three are finger-spinners, which could be too samey, with the only wrist-spin option being Mason Crane among the listed reserves beyond the extended squad. It may serve England to pick the best bowlers rather than choose by style.

Beware a team with options

India’s position is converse. Australia is a boneyard for visiting spinners but off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin bowled like a dream. On 377 Test wickets, he may charge past 400 before Lyon gets off 399. Washington Sundar got four wickets and a half-century on debut as an off-spinning all-rounder. Kuldeep Yadav is a fine left-arm wrist-spinner, Axar Patel is left-arm orthodox. Ravindra Jadeja may return later in the series.

In terms of England’s batting against spin, only Joe Root has credentials. In Asia he averages more than he does on any other continent, but Ben Stokes, Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Moeen and Chris Woakes all average under 30. Early days for some, but a concern. The thing is, times have changed.

Sometimes Indian grounds produce faster, grassy decks, with the luxury of pace bowlers available. Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah are back from injury, Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur impressed in Australia, and the all-rounder Hardik Pandya can deliver heat. Planning only for spin may land you in trouble. And if you think you can rattle India’s batting with speed, they’ve just prospered against guys named Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. Those times have changed as well.

Foot to the floor

Speaking of pace, take the speed of scoring. England’s last tour to India was defined by scale: if England made 400 batting first, India made 600 batting second. What the Indians have now is the chance to change games with the runs-per-minute ratio like never before.

Virender Sehwag was revelatory but he worked alone. India will have Rohit Sharma opening with new boy Shubman Gill, a stroke-playing duo who will not hold back. Virat Kohli has more gears than anybody, given his run-harvests across formats and locations. Rishabh Pant as wicketkeeper has taken Tests by the scruff despite his youth and junior position. And while Indian teams can be lizard-like in their propensity for the tail to fall off, Sundar and Thakur showed in Brisbane that they can belt proper runs at a fast clip. On a day when that whole lineup clicks, may the most proximate gods be merciful.

Don’t count yourself out

With things to worry about, there is also the reason not to worry. Which is that unlikely things do happen, odds do get beaten. India just proved that. Who wins a tour where a team goes through 20 players, months away from home in quarantine conditions, and gets bowled out for the country’s lowest score in the first match? Sure, England will be up against it on India’s patch and the squads don’t match up. But continuing with confidence despite all reason not to is what India did. Best to flatter them with imitation.

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