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.
The series promises, too, a fascinating amalgam of methods – perhaps never better expressed than by India’s final-day surge at the Gabba last month, where Cheteshwar Pujara’s unyieldingly dour half-century showcased everything that is good and proper about old-school Test-match obduracy. That, only for the scintillating swordsmanship of Shubman Gill in the first instance, and Rishabh Pant at the climax, to hack through Australia’s fading hopes in the best and freshest traditions of modern T20 batting.
The manner of that victory also demonstrated that those who fear for Test cricket’s relevance in the T20 age simply haven’t been paying enough attention to the grand old format’s proven ability to shape-shift and assimilate. It has absorbed and adapted to meet changing trends all through its existence, and it is arguably doing so again as we speak, with the lockdown lifestyle turning the sport into more of a mental battle than ever before.
This week, a litany of combatants – Virat Kohli, Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Jasprit Bumrah, Rory Burns and maybe Moeen Ali too – will emerge blinking into the ferocity of a Test match after weeks in stasis, without so much as a middle practice to whet their whistles. Who knows, the upshot might be a contest more akin to a laboratory experiment than a standard Test match – but who could dare suggest that is a less compelling reason to tune in? After the scenes witnessed in Brisbane, when a team of net bowlers and IPL starlets brought about the end to one of sport’s most storied unbeaten runs, there’s no point in trying to second-guess what the right mental attitude can achieve in these extraordinary times.
And when it comes to the mental stakes, England can play that sort of a game too – the template for India’s Gabba run-chase wasn’t that far removed from England’s own victory over Australia at Headingley in 2019, a contest in which Stokes played both the Pujara and the Pant role to perfection. And let’s not overlook the timeless mastery of James Anderson and Stuart Broad either, who have been busy this winter reframing the virtues of line and length for Test cricket’s new age. Relentless pressure, allied to imperceptible variation that can only be honed through experience proved once again that defence can often be the best means of attack in Asian conditions.
But where those two veterans are concerned, it may yet be a case of either/or for this contest as England balance the need for a strong start with the danger of burning through their resources too quickly. Besides, England also have in their ranks the not-insignificant figure of Archer, whose MVP-winning exploits at the recent IPL will surely influence the manner in which he is unleashed in the coming days. Root was guilty of over-using him in his early Test days, but his handling of Mark Wood in Sri Lanka – in short bursts for the most part, bar one gut-busting effort in the second Test – was far more sympathetic.
Archer’s mindset, in fact, is a tale in itself. Few cricketers have looked quite as fed up by the experience of life in lockdown as he did on a media Zoom call in the lead-up to the Chennai Test, but how he processes that frustration could be a key indicator of where this series can be won and lost. As Jurgen Klopp put it in Liverpool’s run to their Premier League title, you need “mentality giants” in times of duress. And no small measure of skill either, of course.
(Last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
In a series dripping with sub-plots before a ball has even been bowled, the return of Virat Kohli is one of the juiciest of all. India’s captain missed their historic win in Australia after choosing to fly home for the birth of his first daughter, and though he lived the triumph vicariously through social media – a medium through which he’s also made it abundantly clear he has no regrets – his absence has opened quite the can of worms in the captaincy stakes.
There’s no questioning Kohli’s status as the supreme leader in Indian cricket – when England were last in India, he dispatched them with a rampant haul of 655 runs in the five Tests. But nor can it be denied that in Kohli’s absence, India’s patched-up squad of talented youngsters responded with pride and vivacity to Ajinkya Rahane’s more understated guidance. Either way, Kohli has proven adept at filtering out the noise throughout his remarkable career, and the debate – if it is one at all – will surely only redouble his determination to get back to leading from the front.
When it comes to England’s batting, there’s no looking beyond Root as the prized scalp in England’s ranks. The prowess he displayed in Sri Lanka was exceptional, and the fact that this will be his 100thTest will shine that spotlight all the more brightly on his endeavours. But if Root’s form can be taken as read, then what of the returning Ben Stokes? He missed the Sri Lanka leg of the winter as well as the last two Tests against Pakistan in August, meaning he’s not played a first-class fixture in six months.
Also, he’s had just five days of practice since ending his quarantine period on Sunday. He is sure to hit the ground running, as he knows no other way, but expecting him to touch the heights he was showing against West Indies last summer might be asking too much. That said, it is not so long ago that he was smoking a 57-ball century for the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL; he of all people knows how to tap into the mental side of his game. Either way, his sheer presence is invaluable for England, not least because it opens up every possible permutation in their team balance.
After the patched-up heroics of Brisbane, it’s the return of the big guns at Chepauk. It will be hard to reconcile the India side that ended Australia’s three-decade-long dominance at the Gabba with the XI which takes the field on Friday, but such were the casualties on that extraordinary campaign that wholesale changes are not only inevitable but welcome for the hosts. Most notably, Kohli will stride back in at No. 4 to complete a daunting middle order bookended by the icy temperament of Pujara and the fiery strokeplay of Pant, who will retain the wicketkeeper’s gloves.
Meanwhile, Bumrah and Ishant Sharma are fit and firing to resume their new-ball duties after the superb stand-in performances of Mohammed Siraj and T Natarajan in Australia. R Ashwin returns too after the back troubles that kept him out at the Gabba, but his spin sidekick Ravindra Jadeja remains sidelined with a broken thumb. Axar Patel is the likely replacement on that front, while Kuldeep Yadav’s left-arm wristspin is likely to make it a three-spin attack in spite of Siraj’s worthy claims for a third seamer’s berth.
India (possible): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rishabh Pant (wk), 7 R Ashwin, 8 Axar Patel, 9 Kuldeep Yadav/Mohammad Siraj, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
England had already been planning to make up to six changes to the side that won so commandingly in Galle last month before Zak Crawley’s wrist injury tore up the script even further. Two of those had been enforced, following the resting of Jonny Bairstow and Mark Wood from this leg of the winter, with Stokes and Archer returning in their place. Burns is also back from paternity leave and is now guaranteed to resume his opening partnership with Dom Sibley although in Crawley’s absence, the identity of No. 3 is anyone’s guess. Root is the obvious choice, though he is allergic to first drop, but has also acknowledged that “everything’s on the table” in selection terms.
Moeen is fit again after his bout of Covid-19 and will challenge strongly for Dom Bess’ offspinner’s berth. Ollie Pope is a likely pick, having been officially added to the squad after recovering from shoulder surgery but Dan Lawrence might yet retain his middle-order berth in light of Crawley’s mishap. And then there’s the thorny issue of Anderson and Broad. Both are worthy of being a first-choice pick, but prudence may get the better of them as England seek to manage their veterans through a tough itinerary. Chris Woakes, scuppered by quarantine in Sri Lanka, might be the most versatile final pick.
England (possible): 1 Dom Sibley, 2 Rory Burns, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Ollie Pope, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Jack Leach, 11 Stuart Broad
Pitch and conditions
Given the strength of India’s pace attack, and – no doubt – the fragility of England’s spin department, the Chepauk groundsman, V Ramesh Kumar looks set to prepare a surface with an unusually “English look”. In the lead-up to the Test, instead of the usual bald surface, there has been a lush covering of grass on the square. Bumrah won’t mind that, but nor you suspect will Anderson and/or Broad – especially now that it’s been confirmed that the series will be contested using a new variant of the SG ball, which has a more pronounced seam and a harder variety of cork in its interior. And if the lack of usual spin assistance may force Ashwin and Co. to work harder for their breakthroughs, then spare a thought for England’s spinners, who may be in for a torrid time to judge by their struggle to stem the flow when the pitches in Sri Lanka were at their most placid.
Stats and trivia
- Root will play his 100thTest a little over eight years after debuting against the same opponents in Nagpur in December 2012. He announced his arrival with a serene 73 in a series-sealing draw, as England claimed a historic 2-1 win.
- England and India have contested in nine previous Tests in Chennai, including their most recent encounter in the country, which saw India’s innings-and-75-run win in the fifth Test in 2016, with Karun Nair making 303 not out.
- The last of England’s three victories at Chepauk came in 1984-85, a match famous for Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler’s double-centuries, and Neil Foster’s 11 wickets in the match.
- India have won each of their last eight home Tests since 2018 – and by a landslide on each occasion. Six victories have been by an innings, with one ten-wicket margin against West Indies and a 203-run win against South Africa.
- The Chennai Test will be the first to be broadcast on UK free-to-air television in more than 15 years since the fifth Test of the 2005 Ashes, which was also shown on Channel 4.
- Following the postponement of Australia’s tour of South Africa, this four-match series will decide which team joins New Zealand in the World Test Championship final. The full permutations are here, but suffice to say, India are favourites, England have a slim chance and Australia are hoping for favours.
“A lot of sides around the world will look at that series that just happened in Australia and take a huge amount of confidence from it. Huge credit to India for going there and winning. It’s a very difficult place to play, but teams will see that and see that it is possible to win when away from home.”
England’s captain Joe Root looks at the positive implications of India’s impressive form
“The Chepauk pitch looks good to bat on, but I think it will also have something for the quicks. The combination we have had in the past, where players can bat and bowl, will be our outlook going forward.”
India’s returning captain Virat Kohli places his faith in India’s all-round core
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket