Anticipation crackles as in-form England square off against dominant India

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The stands may be silent at Chepauk this week, but the crackle of electricity will be visceral all the same. The return of international cricket to India after more than 12 months of Covid-enforced absence will bring a wall of emotion shuddering through the contest, irrespective of the sport’s current haunted state. Is it worth the emotional toil, of quarantine and of extended separations, just for the chance to put bat on ball in an otherwise deserted field? Ask any of Friday’s combatants that question or any of the millions tuning in around the world to one of the true marquee sporting rivalries of the 21st century – including, for the first time in more than 15 years, a terrestrial audience in the UK – and you won’t have to dig deep for your answer.

The timing of this contest could scarcely be more fascinating either. In their very different ways and in vastly different conditions, both England and India arrive in this series flushed with form and confidence. India’s achievement last month, battling back through ignominy, injury and insult to turn the tables in Australia with one of the gutsiest team performances ever witnessed, is already the stuff of legend. It cements, too, their status as overwhelming favourites, especially as they return to more familiar surroundings. They have lost just once on home soil in their last 35 Tests, while dating back to England’s triumphant tour in 2012-13 was the last time any visiting side claimed a series. Steve Waugh wasn’t bluffing when he referred, many moons ago, to India as the final frontier. It truly is one of the most daunting challenges in the sport.

But England, with a renewed focus on Test cricket since their World Cup triumph in 2019 have arrived with a frisson of momentum that cannot be dismissed as a fluke. After spluttering along in the old format for the best part of four years – including their last visit to India in 2016-17 when they were dispatched 4-0 with barely a whimper – they come into this series with evidence of improvements in all conditions and departments. Five overseas victories in a row include two hard-fought wins in Sri Lanka last month, where they may have been gifted a few golden opportunities to claim the upper hand but still had to dig deep to close out the contests. And in Joe Root, resplendent in Sri Lanka with 426 runs in two Tests and now gearing up for his 100th Test, England bring with them arguably the most accomplished player of spin they have ever produced, not to mention a captain eager to make up for lost time.

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