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The Gameplan | How Indian bowlers can trouble English batsmen and set the tone for the series

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Kohli and Root on the eve of the Test series opener

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The Gameplan | How Indian bowlers can trouble English batsmen and set the tone for the series

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Harshit Anand

08/03/2021

While the series between India and England isn't hyped as much due to the craze of the Olympics, it doesn't take away the fact that a series win in England would mean the world to the Indian team. On the last tour, India had won their solitary Test at Trent Bridge, where they start the series.

Before we move ahead to the analysis, take a look at India's record at the venue first: 

What is India's record at Trent Bridge since the start of the century?

Played 5, Won 2, Lost 1, Draws 2,  W/L ratio, 2.000

Game 1: Drawn game (2002)

Game 2: Won by seven wickets (2007)

Game 3: Lost by 319 runs (2011)

Game 4: Drawn game (2014)

Game 5: Won by 203 runs (2018)

Half of India's Test wins this century in England have come in Nottingham, making it a happy hunting ground for the visitors. 

Let's get to the main points now:

The Gameplan

The biggest threat - Joe Root 

With an average of 62.00 at Trent Bridge, this is Root's second-best ground in the country in terms of average, if we consider a minimum of three Tests. The English skipper knows a thing or two about performing well against India, as he averages 54.21 against them and has scored 1,789 runs with five centuries. Given how well he has performed in 2021, Root will be a pain in the neck for India and form the backbone of the English line-up, especially in the absence of the box-office Ben Stokes. 

How can India get better of him?

Well, for starters, the moment India spots Joe Root on the 22 yards, they need to send down their star pacer Jasprit Bumrah. Bumrah vs Root. Yes, that's the most intriguing battle, given both are the best of their world. Till now, Bumrah is the only Indian pacer who has had the wood over Root, as the right-hander averages a paltry 29.3 when put against him. The Yorkshire batter averages a whopping 90 and 90.5 against Shami and Ishant. Root is a naturally aggressive player, but Bumrah bamboozles him, with his machine-esque consistency, as can be gauged from this stat - Bumrah has bowled 223 deliveries to the England captain, of which 170 have been dots, with Root striking at 39.5 instead of the usual 54.69.

What lengths to bowl to Root?

It's a well-known fact that Root has struggled in England since the start of 2018. He has had a horrible time against good-length deliveries, with him averaging a poor 22.6 when confronted with the length. He doesn't enjoy playing full-length deliveries as well, averaging 31.9 against such balls. Also, Indian bowlers can exploit his weak front foot game. As a predominantly back-foot player, Root has been dismissed 14 times on the forward defence. So, get a confident Root playing a diffident poke, and Indians should be in business.

The wild card option - Ravichandran Ashwin

If Root goes unscathed, India can employ their ace spinner Ashwin. Root has a reputation for playing spin well in the sub-continent. But in England, he has been found wanting against off-spinners. Since the start of 2018, the classy batsman has got out to offies on seven occasions out of 15 and has averaged a below-par 28.4, with 67.8% deliveries being dots.

Problem-child 2: Rory Burns

After a poor India series, Rory Burns put up an exceptional show in this year's County cricket, amassing 617 runs in 14 innings at 47.46 with a century and seven fifties. He continued his golden run with the bat against a gun Kiwi attack, averaging almost 60 and emerging as England's best batter in an otherwise bleak series. He will be a challenge for India this summer. 

Attack him with left-arm seamers 

But wait, will Zaheer Khan be as fit at 42 to endure the rigours of Test cricket? Hell no. So, let's ditch the idea or else, the English opener was averaging a miserable 15.5 against left-arm seamers in England since the start of 2020. However, he's a gun against right-arm seamers and is averaging 80 against them.

What else can India try?

May be, trust their pacers with the new ball? They can, but Burns was batting beautifully against both swing and seam, playing the ball late, with an unorthodox yet watertight technique. That brings us to his other weakness - off-spin. Yep, bring on an offie, tell the Indian fans to grab the popcorn, and get ready for celebrations. The southpaw has averaged 19 against off-spinners since the start of 2020. But, wait, you guys be like, he couldn't have fared any better with the turners on offer in India earlier? Then let me tell you that Burns averages 25 against offies at home too, and the classic match-up works wonders against him. So, if he doesn't get out early, India will need to unravel the evergreen Ravichandran Ashwin with a brand new Duke ball, and he might hunt down the seasoned campaigner. Mind you, the Tamil Nadu spinner has got him out three times, with the batter averaging a meagre 11 against him. And the Indian spinner is very well versed with the art of bowling with the new ball, as seen on the 2018 tour against Alastair Cook.

The Dom Sibley headache 

Dom Sibley isn't a prolific scorer or perceived as a threat. But that's the catch. He will not kill you with his strokes or runs, but his patience can hurt India where it pains them the most. India are most likely to play three pacers, and with no Hardik Pandya, they are likely to have a greater workload. As observed in the WTC final, the Indian pacers weren't as relentless as their Kiwi counterparts in their third and fourth spells. And that's what Sibley can do well - wear down the bowlers early and help out his teammates. And India would want their pacers to be as fresh as possible to attack England's Achilles heel - their middle-order sans Ben Stokes. 

Employ a leg-side trap

The Indian team had a fair bit of success with the leg-side trap against Australia's duo of Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, and they can employ the same strategy against Sibley. The way he holds his bat, his backlift, and everything force him to score the vast majority of his runs on the leg-side. So, India can pin him down using similar tactics to push him out of his comfort zone, and it will also get them closer to Joe Root sooner. 

Bowl straight, bring LBW in play

An impeccable judge of his off-stump, the English right-hander rarely nicks off, but he's vulnerable against straighter deliveries. So, there is no point in trying to test his patience by bowling the perfect off-stump line. He will keep leaving deliveries, as shown in the earlier picture. Take a look at his dismissals against pace in England:

As we can see, he has got out to straighter deliveries quite a lot. West Indies had also exploited this weakness of his when they toured England in 2020. He was out LBW/bowled three out of five times, and it's a ploy that India can use with Mohammed Shami, the best candidate to execute the plan of action as he has got 44% of his wickets via LBW/bowled.

The playing XI India should field 

Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli (C), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (WK), R Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Jasprit Bumrah. 

Open with Pujara, slot KL at 3

It would be weird now if India makes KL Rahul open the innings after being clear that they see him as a middle-order batsman. In any case, given India's fragile opening batting, Pujara, more often than not, is up against the new ball. He averages 116 as an opener, having scored 348 runs in six innings at the position. The last time he opened the batting, the right-hander made 145* against Sri Lanka on a seaming deck. Pujara had also opened the batting for India in the second innings of the warm-up game and done well. Slotting KL at No.3 will be better as it will provide the much-needed respite to the returning batsman. Besides, he and Kohli can form a good pair in the middle-overs, keep the scoreboard moving, with Pujara more suited to opening the batting.

Play Shardul Thakur over Jadeja/Hanuma Vihari 

Simply put, Hanuma Vihari at #6 or #7 will be a waste of a slot, given at such dynamic positions, you need batters who can score at a good rate and play well with the tail, something that Vihari lacks. While for Ravindra Jadeja, he adds little value with the ball as the fifth bowler in England, and for him too, the No.7 slot is too low, as he likes to take his time and has failed with the tail in Tests, especially away. Shadrul Thakur can be a good choice, given he can make handy 20s or 30s at the #8 position and is a decent option as the fourth pacer. Plus, he boasts an X-factor, as seen in the Gabba Test. It will also provide a breather to other Indian pacers, and they will be able to bowl more effectively in their latter spells.

Play Siraj over Ishant Sharma 

Ishant Sharma's is Team India's banker, or we can say the workhorse. But, India needs the X-factor of Mohammed Siraj badly. In the WTC final, despite bowling good line and lengths, Ishant could merely pick three wickets. With Bumrah's poor form, India will need an enforcer/wicket-taker, a role that Siraj can play well. Besides, he can also do the hold-up job, as witnessed in the Australia Tests and is an all-round bowling package. 

Other pointers:

India will need to be wary of England's lower-order batting, with Jos Buttler likely to trouble India alongside the likes of Sam Curran and Ollie Robinson. India were ordinary against the lower-order batters even in the WTC final and will need to find a way to get better on this front if they have to win the Test. 

If Ravindra Jadeja plays for India in the game, he will need to show more intent and farm the strike well, especially with the tail. His batting with the tail backfired for India in the WTC final.

Bumrah has been extraordinarily poor with the new ball in the first 15 overs and has taken merely two wickets in 73.4 overs in the phase since the start of 2020, striking every 221 deliveries. India will be better suited to use him as the first-change bowler. 

Since 2020, R Ashwin has averaged 18.8 in the first 15 overs with the new ball. The lanky spinner gets a lot of bounce with the new cherry, and India, pretty much like on the Australia tour, should be open to using him early. 

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