England lead, but India upbeat: Talking points ahead of Southampton Test

Fourth Test starts on Thursday, with tourists pursuing history against side who still have more questions than answers - despite holding 2-1 lead

India's captain Virat Kohli, right, and his team attend a nets session at The AGEAS Bowl, Southampton, south England, Tuesday Aug. 28, 2018. (Steven Paston/PA via AP)
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Mission improbable

What a difference a win makes. Or a loss, dependent on your perspective.

Two weeks ago, India were apparently in the throes of calamity, their vaunted batting line-up rendered useless – Virat Kohli apart – by James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes. Easy to forget they were the world’s No 1 team at the time.

A crushing win at Trent Bridge later, and suddenly they are zeroing in on a lame duck England side, who are themselves harrowed by chronic, unsolvable problems. And yet they are still 2-1 up in the series.

For India to rein in England after giving up the first two games would be highly improbable, not to mention historic. Only Don Bradman’s Australians, who won the 1936/37 Ashes 3-2, have managed such a feat before.

And, talking of Bradman …

India's captain Virat Kohli, right, attends a nets session at The AGEAS Bowl, Southampton, south England, Tuesday Aug. 28, 2018. (Steven Paston/PA via AP)
Virat Kohli returned to the summit of the Test batting rankings with another even 200 at Trent Bridge. AP Photo

Class Kohli

Kohli is in the midst of a ding-dong battle to decide who is the best batsman in the world at present - with a batsman who is not actually playing at present.

It says much about the excellence of Steve Smith, before he departed the scene for his year off through suspension, that Kohli has only flip-flopped with him at the top of the world rankings despite his run-glut this summer.

His match haul of 200 runs in the opening Test at Edgbaston put the Indian to No 1. Smith vaulted back up, without having to do anything, when Kohli faltered at Lord's. Then India's captain returned to the summit with another even 200 at Trent Bridge.

Smith’s statistics might have seen him labelled the Best Since Bradman. Whether he is better than Kohli, though, might be a matter of taste.

India's Mohammed Shami, left, celebrates with teammates the dismissal of England's Ollie Pope, right, during the fourth day of the third cricket test match between England and India at Trent Bridge in Nottingham, England, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
There is yet hope that the promising Ollie Pope, right, can score big runs for England. AP Photo

Different batsmen, same problems

A Test at the Ageas Bowl scarcely represents home advantage for England. India play there as often as they do.

The last time a Test was staged in Southampton was four years ago, when England beat India by 266 runs.

Between them, the forgotten trio of Sam Robson, Gary Ballance and Ian Bell contributed 349 first-innings runs to that win in 2014.

Each might have been moved on since, but England are no nearer finding a solution to their batting ills.

If the likes of Keaton Jennings, James Vince and Ollie Pope - assuming any or all of them play - can accrue as much as 349 across the match between them, England would be grateful. They have only surpassed that amount once as a team so far in five innings this series.


Read more:

Ian Oxborrow: Is James Vince in danger of becoming the modern-day Graeme Hick?

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil: Kohli pays tribute and Buttler should never be dropped again

Graham Caygill: Problems to ponder for England despite leading India in Test series


Cricket - England Nets - Ageas Bowl, West End, Britain - August 29, 2018   England's Jos Buttler and Joe Root during nets   Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs
England batsman Jos Buttler, right, will take up wicketkeeping duties, like he does in the limited overs. Reuters

Let Buttler do it

If, as seems prudent, Jos Buttler does take the wicketkeeping gloves from Jonny Bairstow, at least the England line-up would have a more sensible look to it.

Having a specialist batsman – and a flashy, white-ball specialist at that – batting at No 7 feels like a luxury in a team that cannot necessarily afford it, judging by recent results.

It is not a guarantee of success. The last time Buttler was the designated wicketkeeper, it was a horror show. He managed scores of 24, 4, 0 and 7 in Tests in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and was promptly hurried into the Test wilderness as result.

Bairstow, too, says he is desperate to keep the gloves, so maybe the change will only be temporary, while his finger injury heals.

India's Hardik Pandya bowls during the fifth day of the third Test cricket match between England and India at Trent Bridge in Nottingham, central England on August 22, 2018. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. NO ASSOCIATION WITH DIRECT COMPETITOR OF SPONSOR, PARTNER, OR SUPPLIER OF THE ECB
India all-rounder Hardik Pandya is lending balance to his team's line-up. AFP

IPL stars

England have only really started to pick Test players solely on the back of white-ball exploits this summer. And Buttler and Adil Rashid have had mixed results.

The tourists, though, have an abundance of Indian Premier League stars to thank for being back in with a fighting chance in this series.

Hardik Pandya might not be Kapil Dev. But he showed in match-turning cameos with bat and ball at Trent Bridge that he at least balances this India side as an all-rounder of some substance.

His young Mumbai Indians colleague Jasprit Bumrah showed, too, that his Test renown could become every bit as great as his limited-overs one. His pace bowling provides a new cutting edge in a side that already has an enviable supply of quicks.

And Rishabh Pant might have caught the eye by hitting his second ball in Test cricket for six, but his dapper glovework was a bigger plus for India.