India vs England 3rd Test Preview: Set for the third episode
Day-night Tests can evoke bittersweet memories for India. Sweet because the first tryst with the pink ball against Bangladesh in 2019 ended up being the shortest Test (968 balls) at home with an innings and 46 runs win. Bitter, well, for the infamous 36 all out in Adelaide in their second foray.
So, here we are at the biggest cricket stadium in the world, waiting to host its first international match since getting refurbished, for India’s third episode with the pink ball against Joe Root’s England.
The series is well set up at 1-1, and the race for a spot in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand can take a decisive turn if either team loses. India need to win the series by a 2-1 margin, while England need to win it by 3-1. A drawn series will see Australia joining the Kiwis.
Adding more intrigue to the contest are the conditions. A brand new pitch, extra coating of lacquer on the pink ball, twilight phase, dew–all of them factors for both teams as they mull over their final XI.
A greenish top to keep the pink ball’s shine and hardness intact has meant that pace has dominated discussions in the build-up. A fact accentuated by both sides keeping their best pacers–James Anderson and Jasprit Bumrah–fresh by resting them for the second Test.
But somewhat contrasting views from both camps in the lead-up to the Test has kept the guessing game still on.
Two days ahead of the match, Umesh Yadav cleared a fitness Test and was inducted into the squad. It has bolstered a pace line-up that has the veteran Ishant Sharma playing his 100th Test, the ever-reliable Bumrah and the talented rookie Mohammed Siraj.
While Ishant and Bumrah, who was rested for the second Test, are almost assured to be in the XI, the question remains on the third spot.
“The pink ball does tend to swing a lot more than the red ball. We experienced that in the one match that we played in 2019 against Bangladesh,"
Virat Kohli said ahead of the game on Tuesday. "It’s much (more) challenging to play with the new pink ball regardless of which pitch you are playing on. As a batting team if you are starting in the evening under the lights then that one, one and half hours is really challenging. Yes, spin will play a role for sure, but I don’t think the fast bowlers can be ignored. The pink ball brings them into the game till it is shiny,”
But will a third pacer play at all, or will it be a spinner? Rohit Sharma on Sunday said the Sardar Patel Stadium pitch is going to be “turning as well”. The Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy knockout phase games here in January saw spinners ending up with good returns. That brings us to the second piece of the jigsaw puzzle–will Kuldeep Yadav be able to retain his place?
India’s top six batsmen look well set, while spin duo Ravichandran Ashwin, six wickets shy of 400 Test scalps, and the in-form Axar Patel seem sure choices.
It’s the XIth slot that remains open.
Left-arm wrist spinner Yadav adds variety. His wrong’uns may be difficult to read under the lights, especially with the pink ball. But if his inclusion means India is a pacer short, then the management may be tempted to use seam-bowling allrounder Hardik Pandya to cover both bases. But that would mean disrupting a perfectly set batting line-up.
In day-night Tests, grass is maintained on the pitch to retain the shine and hardness of the pink balls and hence pacers get more carry. It gives them more ammunition. While pacers have averaged less than 25 in the 15 day-night Tests over the last five years, spinners average over 35.
“Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson and Jofra Archer have been licking their lips, I can tell you,” Ben Stokes told talkSPORT on Monday. “It was funny in training yesterday when the lights came on, the nets actually got really dangerous. The bowlers had to stop bowling in the nets because we were actually worried that some of the batters were going to get injured because the ball started jumping off a length and a few guys actually got hit. Whether that’s going to be similar in the middle we're not sure.”
It was the case in Kolkata in 2019, where the curator had kept 6mm grass and Indian pacers dismissed all the Bangladesh batsmen. There were two concussion substitutions too. Here in Ahmedabad, the healthy grass cover in the centre has gradually been sheared off as the day of the match has approached.
“Playing against India in the subcontinent you expect the ball to spin and I’m sure at some point it will. But if conditions are more seam-orientated, then the experience of growing up in English conditions should be in our favour,” Joe Root, England captain, said. “We will wait till the morning of the Test before deciding our combination.”
The equation of day-night Tests tilting in favour of fast bowlers changes in Asia. Though pacers averaged better (18.18) than the spinners (112.0) in the Kolkata Test, it was the opposite in two day-night Tests in Dubai where the pitches were dry. With the England squad boasting some of cricket's most experienced and feared pacers, India might not want to take a chance with a good grass cover.
“We are not bothered by the strengths and weaknesses of the England team. We have beaten them in their home as well, where the ball does way more. If the seamer-friendly track is for them, it is for us as well. Among other teams we have the best bowling attack. We are not bothered by what the ball might bring to the table,” Kohli said.
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