England’s tour of Sri Lanka was always going to be a warmup before their showdown versus India, but now that they’ve passed that test with flying colours, there’s plenty to look forward to. India are currently resting, but the tour has provided them with a lot of learnings about their next opponent.
The two Tests versus Sri Lanka did not just provide an opportunity for England to see where they were as a team, it also enabled fans across the world - and England themselves - to evaluate how well-placed the Three Lions were, heading into the crucial four-Test series versus India. The 2-0 result proved that Joe Root and his men were doing a lot of things right, but there were also holes that were not quite efficiently exposed by the Lankans which, should they not fix it, might be exploited by India next month. Here we look at the important takeaways for team India from England’s recently-concluded whitewash of the Lankans.
The inefficacy of Dom Bess and Jack Leach to build pressure
The English spin twins Dom Bess and Jack Leach finished the Sri Lanka series with a combined 22 wickets under their belt, yet more than half of those scalps were down to the ineptness and indiscipline of the Sri Lankan batsmen. Nothing exemplified this more than the fact that, according to CricViz, Bess’ five-fer on Day 1 of the first Test in Galle was the worst five-fer in Test history in terms of ‘expected wickets’.
Both spinners blew hot and cold throughout the series for different reasons - Bess due to inexperience and Leach due to lack of match-practice - but something that was telling was the duo’s inability to build pressure by tightening the noose. Bess and Leach went at 2.99 and 3.20 runs an over respectively across 4 innings in the series and at least delivered one rank boundary-ball an over which the Lankans capitalized on. The two bowlers’ indiscipline peaked in the first innings of the second Test in Galle where, with the sun belting down, Root had to go to a 38-year-old Anderson (who bowled 3 more overs than Bess in that innings) to regain control.
What would concern England, and in turn, delight India is that the Lankans did not consciously try to hit the spinners out of the attack; they were pretty much gifted all the runs. In 2019, India mauled South Africa when two of the Proteas’ specialist spinners, Keshav Maharaj (ER 4.04) and Dane Piedt (5.74), failed to build pressure, so you imagine they would be licking their lips at the prospect of milking free runs out of Bess and Leach.
The need to not prepare rank turners that will bring the English spinners into the game
For every Indian fan, the prospect of Chepauk or even the Motera unleashing a rank-turner is mouth-watering, for they could then see the Indian spinners humiliate the visiting batsmen, but it would be erroneous on India’s part to dish out such wickets. The reason being a raging turner not only makes Test matches a lottery with the team winning the toss becoming an instant overwhelming favourite, it also bridges the gap in the skillset between spinners.
A Bess or a Leach, who might otherwise struggle on a good batting wicket with little purchase, would suddenly fancy themselves on tracks that turn prodigiously - as was the case in Day 4 of the second Test in Galle - and that would, in a way, end up nullifying the edge India hold over the visitors. A good example of this is the Pune Test versus Australia in 2017, where India were annihilated by Steve O’Keefe on a minefield. India bulldozed South Africa using rank-turners in 2015, but they were lucky enough to win the toss in each of the three games they won.
The hosts would, therefore, be better off preparing good batting wickets that disintegrate slowly as the Test progresses - something they did in the last home season and also during the 2016 series versus England. This way, they will take the English spinners completely out of the equation and just rely on their batsmen to out-bat the English batters, which they are more than capable of doing.
The English openers’ inherent weakness versus spin
Dom Sibley might have ended the Lanka tour with an unbeaten 56, but there is every reason for India to be ecstatic about the prospect of bowling to him - even in that innings, there were three umpire’s calls that went his way.
Across both the Tests, both Sibley and Zak Crawley displayed an inherent weakness against spin bowling, and this was illustrated by the fact that all seven of their dismissals in the series were against the left-arm spin of Lasith Embuldeniya. While Crawley had troubles with his stride, often misreading lengths and being deceived into prodding at the ball, Sibley was caught stuck on his crease, thereby bringing all dismissals into play. Across the two Tests, Sibley was dismissed bowled, LBW and caught. Unlike Crawley, Sibley also does not have release shots, meaning he can really not hit his way out of trouble.
This will be a definite area of interest for India, who should ponder the option of opening the bowling with spin from one end and pace at the other. Even should one of these two be dropped, their replacement Rory Burns, too, is notorious for his deplorable track record versus off-spin.
The Anderson-Broad threat
The limelight might be on the duo of Dom Bess and Jack Leach and how they fare, but India must be wary of the threat of the veterans James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who in the Sri Lanka series bowled the best they ever have in Asia. While in the first Test Broad outfoxed the Lankan batsmen using his cutters, scrambled seam and meticulous plans, the second Test saw Anderson pretty much manufacture six wickets out of a lifeless Galle wicket through persistent fourth-stump bowling.
Though England went Broad-or-Anderson in the Sri Lanka series, the veterans’ performance might very well force the Three Lions to re-think their plans and go the Broad-and-Anderson route. Both the champion bowlers ran riot on a Galle wicket that had nothing for the seamers, thus it is completely possible that Broad and Anderson - and not Bess and Leach - could turn out to be the two biggest thorns in India’s path, come the four Tests, particularly with reports indicating that the Chennai wicket might yield healthy assistance for seamers.
Broad or Anderson replicating Dale Steyn’s feats might be far fetched, but the duo turning out to be the biggest threat for India is completely within the realms of possibility.
Joe Root and his love for sweeps
Having devised a relatively successful plan to hinder the rhythm and run-scoring of Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, it will indeed be fascinating to see how India tackle the threat of Joe Root. For the English skipper swept, swept and swept his way to success against Sri Lanka. Root, against Sri Lanka, finished the series with 2x the amount of runs as the second-highest run-getter in the series, and did so by sweeping. From long leg to cow corner, the right-hander swept the ball everywhere and not just used it as a boundary option, but also as a ploy to rotate strike. So ridiculously good is Root in deploying the sweep shot that Monday marked the first instance of him getting out playing the shot in 4 years (220 attempts).
In Ashwin, India have a spinner who has transcended challenges and conquered the very best, time and again, but if and how he and India cut-down the run-scoring options for Root - who is a better player of spin than everyone he bowled to in Australia a few weeks ago - could go a long way in deciding whether the series turns out to be competitive.
The absence of Buttler and Bairstow and the uncertainty that comes with it
India will be glad to see the back of Buttler after the first Test - it will mean that by the time the second Test beckons, England will be without, at least on current form, their second and third best players of spin.
Across both the Tests versus Sri Lanka, Buttler and Bairstow played invaluable hands under pressure and showcased maturity and authority that was only shown by one other batsman across both sides, their skipper Root. The debate surrounding the merit of resting the duo will go on forever, but that England will be left in a precarious position with their absence goes unsaid.
The absence of Buttler and Bairstow will give India the opportunity to tap into a vulnerable middle-order which, even despite the addition of Ben Stokes, will have to be held together by Root. Dan Lawrence, Ollie Pope, Ben Foakes and Zak Crawley - should he get pushed to 3 once Rory Burns returns - will all walk in with minimal experience and/or match-practice, something which might play into the hands of India. Whether England recall Bairstow for the final two Tests remains to be seen, but India, at least initially, would not mind Root and Stokes bearing the burden of having to score the bulk of the runs.