Kohli intent on cementing legacy with series win for India in England
Australia’s cricketers partied long into the night on the outfield here two years ago. They had taken a 2-1 lead over England, retained the Ashes and, to empty stands and with beers in hand, gave a drawling rendition of True Blue by the folk singer John Williamson.
Tim Paine, their captain, looked to gee up his players before the subsequent fifth Test at the Oval, dubbing it their “Grand Final” in a nod to the other major codes back home. But what followed was the performance of a team that had experienced its moment a week earlier. England won, the series was drawn 2-2 and Cricket Australia’s fly-on-the-wall documentary did not get the final flourish its editors had hoped for.
India find themselves in the same scenario this week by way of scoreline, but the psychology is different to Ashes cricket. For a start, the Pataudi Trophy is at stake for series played in England and the Anthony de Mello Trophy when in India. Joe Root’s side therefore hold the former after three successive home series wins and so, despite being thrashed 3-1 in India this year, retention is still possible with victory in the fifth Test that starts on Friday.
India did not come across as a side who had climbed their mountain with that 157-run victory at Oval on Monday. They did become the second India team since Kapil Dev’s triumphant 1986 tour to record two Test wins on English soil but Virat Kohli is a captain who wants to seal the country’s fourth outright series victory here, and a first since 2007, to further cement his legacy. Had it not rained on the final day in Nottingham, this may already be the case.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s impending debut at the other Old Trafford on Saturday means Kohli, perhaps for the first time in his recent career, is not the highest profile sportsperson on show in Manchester this weekend. A near two-year drought of centuries will bother this perfectionist more. But even more vexing to him, a day out from the match, was what the latest positive Covid result among India’s support staff meant for the denouement 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 confined to their hotel rooms, with their optional training session cancelled and further PCR testing undertaken. But by the evening word came back that everyone returned negative results.
Assuming this means a green light for the fifth Test to proceed – everyone is vaccinated but the proximity of the multimillion dollar Indian Premier League is a complicating factor here – both teams are expected to make changes.
India have a refreshed Mohammed Shami ready to replace a seamer – most likely Mohammed Siraj after Jasprit Bumrah’s game-breaking performance in London on Monday – and also face their latest decision over Ravichandran Ashwin.
The pitch at Old Trafford looked a bare, slightly mottled one 24 hours out from the toss and is expected to turn. If so, Ashwin for Shardul Thakur would be a logical move, even if the all-rounder was unfortunate not to be named player of the match at the Oval, but Ashwin’s non-appearance thus far means there are no guarantees. India must also decide if Ajinkya Rahane’s loss of form should prompt a change to the middle order, with Hanuma Vihari and Suryakumar Yadav the alternatives here.
Despite India having been in the UK since June, when they lost the World Test Championship final to New Zealand, it is hard not to sense greater weariness among England’s players and not least for the new-ball pairing of Jimmy Anderson and Ollie Robinson. With the pitch tempting them to play Jack Leach as a second spinner alongside Moeen Ali, and Mark Wood already pencilled in to replace Craig Overton, it may be that Robinson finally tags out after four matches on the bounce.
If so, a three-seamer, two-spinner attack would put the onus on Anderson and Chris Woakes to provide the chief wicket-taking threat in the first innings and then Moeen, Leach and the reverse swing of Wood come the second. This will ask plenty of Anderson, who has racked up 163.3 overs in the series, although with Old Trafford not hosting a Test match next year, it could be the 39-year-old’s final chance to grace his home ground in the whites of England.
Another Lancashire cricketer on show (in theory at least, given his fleeting appearances) is Jos Buttler, who returns after paternity leave and is likely to displace Jonny Bairstow.
Bairstow has looked in decent touch but one half-century and four scores between 29 and 37 – ie starts without going on – hint England will prefer the coming man in Ollie Pope after he top-scored with 81 at the Oval. Buttler, averaging 28 this year, could do with a score too. But then bar Root, and perhaps Rory Burns as the only other England century-maker this year, that goes for the entire top seven.
You have to go back to the 2001 Ashes for the last time England lost a five-Test series at home and unless fortunes improve with the bat, or it turns out India’s true blue moment was indeed last week, this will become another damning statistic from a summer of disappointing results.