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By Julian Guyer
London: Aug 14, 2014
Had India, who’ve now won just one of their last 18 Tests on foreign soil, been offered the chance to arrive at The Oval 2-1 down with one to play in this five-match series before their tour started, they might have taken up the offer. A tightly-packed schedule of five Tests in the space of 42 days has done India few favours as they head to south London for the start of the series finale on Friday.
Just a few weeks ago, India beat England by 95 runs in the second Test at Lord’s to go 1-0 up in the series. But that success was sealed by fast bowler Ishant Sharma exploiting England’s vulnerability against the short ball with a Test-best return of seven for 74. Since then Sharma has missed both India’s 266-run defeat in the third Test at Southampton and their even more crushing innings and 54-run loss in the fourth Test at Old Trafford last week with a leg injury.
However, India are increasingly optimistic he could return to action in the fifth Test. Despite losing inside three days in Manchester, India did again make England’s batsmen look decidedly jumpy when confronted with the short ball to the extent that all-rounder Stuart Broad suffered a broken nose trying to hook Varun Aaron when the ball found its way between the peak of his helmet and the grille.
But the Oval is not the fast pitch it once was or indeed Old Trafford currently is. If it stays true to recent type, a slow low surface should remind India of home but will also make the job of ‘bouncing out’ England that much more difficult.
The biggest recent problem for an India side coached by former England boss Duncan Fletcher has been their batting, as exemplified by the team’s struggles to barely get beyond 150 in both innings at Old Trafford. No one has exemplified their batting difficulties better than the talented Virat Kohli, who has so far scored only 108 runs this series at an average of 13.5.
But it was the manner of India’s collapse, which saw nine wickets lost after tea on Saturday that was perhaps the most concerning aspect of the Old Trafford debacle.
“There were was no backbone shown by India,” former Indian opening great Sunil Gavaskar told BBC Radio’s Test Match Special as he reflected on the humbling loss.
“They showed no determination, the dismissals were soft, there were no great deliveries, England were just persistent,” added Gavaskar, whose famed resilience and concentration the current-day team could do with now.
Yet his point about England not being made to play the kind of cricket that ought to secure such a crushing win remains valid too.
Alastair Cook’s men still have problems to address as well as their bouncer issues, particularly the extent of the gap between the threat of the new-ball pairing of Broad and James Anderson and back-up seamers Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan.
Anderson now needs just eight wickets to surpass Ian Botham’s England Test record of 383 and Broad, who could play in a face mask, will be keen to follow up his man-of-the-match effort in taking six for 25 in India’s first innings in Manchester.
If Broad is not fit, or England decide to drop either Woakes or Jordan, then rejuvenated Middlesex fast bowler Steven Finn is waiting in the wings.
Someone who has proved a thorn in India’s side throughout the series is spin-bowling all-rounder Moeen Ali, who has taken 19 wickets at under 23 apiece.
That England, who had gone 10 Tests without a win before their Southampton success, now have to worry about complacency is a welcome change.
“We know India are going to come very hard at us, and we’ll have to make sure we’ve got all bases covered and not be caught off guard,” said England batsman Joe Root.
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