On Wednesday (November 9) begins England’s first five-game series in India since 1984-85. Yet, despite all the possible variables that such an elongated series offers, the outcome is likely to come down to one thing: how Alastair Cook and Joe Root play India’s spinners.
That is not to say that the rest of England’s order is not capable of scoring the runs required but the batting line-up is in a state of flux. The top six in Rajkot will have a debutant to open, a No.4 with only two Test caps and a number five who has batted most of his Test career in the lower-middle order.
That makes the performances of Root and Cook so important to England’s chances. They will be faced with the high-class spin of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja and how they fare against these two will do much to decide who wins the series.
Cook has been there and done it. England’s captain has a fine record in the subcontinent and has particularly good memories of playing in India. He scored a century on debut in Nagpur in 2006 and scored three hundreds in the 2-1 series victory in 2012. He averages 57.09 in Asia overall and 61.85 in India.
Cook’s technique defensively against spin is first rate; his supreme fitness allows him to bat for long periods and an improved sweep shot gives him the ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over. He is ideally suited to subcontinental conditions but knows that previous performances count for little. Compared to 2012, when he had a strong batting line-up around him, a luxury he does not have this time round, it is a vastly different challenge.
Root also made his debut in Nagpur on that 2012 tour and made a vital 73 in the first innings to help England draw the game that would win them the series. Root’s record in Asia is good, averaging 47.80, but he is yet to score a century in the subcontinent.
Currently ranked third in the ICC’s Test batting rankings, England’s No.3 has yet to fully demonstrate his undoubted class in Asian conditions. It is not a lack of ability, with five half-centuries in 12 innings in Asia attest, and he has the game to prosper – all the shots in the book, a solid defence and experience in these conditions – but it is time he scored that elusive hundred.
For this series, Root’s importance to England’s batting order cannot be overstated. Cook and Haseeb Hameed, who will be making his debut, above him are both accumulators rather than dashers so the ability of the Yorkshireman to play expansively will be an asset. England have to be able to attack India’s bowling when the time is right and Root has a prominent role to play there.
Both Cook and Root registered one half-century each in the two Tests against Bangladesh but were not able to go on to a more substantial score. Against India, this profligacy will be punished. On wickets that are likely to spin sharply as the games wear on, batsmen can be forgiven for getting out early but it is when set that they have to go on to post match-defining innings.
In England’s 2012 series win, Cook and Kevin Pietersen did just that and in last winter’s series against Pakistan in the UAE, Cook scored a mammoth 263 to help draw the opening Test. Such feats are likely to be needed again if England are to at least compete.
There will be challenges posed by India’s seamers but long, substantial innings in the subcontinent involve lots of exposure to spin which is why the performances of Cook and Root against the Indian spinners will be crucial. Keeping them at bay, over after over, session after session, is the only way England can win this series. Other players such as Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes have a role to play but Cook and Root will have to do most of the heavy lifting.
Not that they got it right in Bangladesh. Of interest were the dismissals of Cook, three times to the teenage offspinner Mehedi Hasan, and Root, three times by left-arm spin. With that series in mind, Kohli is sure to give Cook an early sight of Ashwin and Root, one of Jadeja. Those early skirmishes will be instructive as to the likely fortunes of the various players.
Without any tour games between the Tests, there is precious little time for England’s players to put right any technical faults or to turn round bad fortune. Ashwin and Jadeja, particularly in their home conditions, will prey on any weakness so it is paramount that Cook and Root start well in Rajkot. That is perhaps more important than ever given England’s batting struggles over the past year and their inexperience.
Another series, another challenge for Root and Cook, then. England’s two leading batsmen will have to play at, or close to, their maximum for their side to have any chance of beating India. If they don’t, Kohli’s men should walk it.