Lord’s seems as though it happened a very long time ago, doesn’t it? Since taking a series lead in the second Test at the home of cricket, India have slumped to two spineless losses and look completely shot. It is not merely that they were outplayed yet again away from home, it is not simply the foreign pace and bounce that has led to their demise. Indeed, there is such a plethora of errors in judgement and temperament that it is difficult to pinpoint where it is all going wrong for the visitors. For England, back-to-back Test wins have been over a year in the waiting and the tremendous pressure on the shoulders of coach and captain has been temporarily lifted. This five-Test cricket feast comes to an end at the Oval and the onus is now on India’s weary travellers to make England work for the series win they so desperately covet.
England are slowly beginning to pick up the pieces of their wrecked Ashes side and assemble them into a force to be reckoned with. That is not to say that India have not contributed largely to the project. England will face sides in the coming years, home and away, that won’t be nearly as forgiving. James Anderson and Stuart Broad has been phenomenal on pitches that have assisted them, though this should be a given considering that they were lead actors in an attack that was once touted (generally be fellow countrymen) as the best in the world. There is some uncertainty whether Broad will get a run in the final Test after fracturing his nose in England’s second innings in Manchester. Arguably, the tall fast bowler deserved it. Not many will get away with hooking Varun Aaron, who was generating some decent pace, for two consecutive sixes and remain standing on the third attempt. With Broad in doubt, Steven Finn retains his place in the squad and should be given a start if the blonde first-choice is unfit. While part-time spinner come all-rounder Moeen Ali continues to have India in knots, England’s back-up seamers in Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes have been largely unimpressive. Woakes, in particular, looks uncreative and ordinary. Ben Stokes, despite poor form relegating him from the starting line-up, would be the better option but there is no reason that England shouldn’t look towards bowlers like Finn and Plunkett (injury aside) to support the terrible twins.
Did I mention that the Lord’s Test feels part of a different series? India were inserted on as green a pitch as you will likely see in your lifetime and although they struggled for a competitive score, they at least kept their composure against the moving ball and played with a modicum of responsibility. They suffered a slight first innings deficit to rally strongly and, again, the tail-enders provided enough resistance to leave England 319 runs to chase. Enter Ishant Sharma and seven wickets later, England were trailing in the series. Fast-forward to Manchester. Dhoni wins the toss, bats first on a spicy track and comes in with his team at 8/4. India were to equal the record for the most ducks in an innings, concede 367 runs and then promptly capitulate to hand England an innings victory. Barely thought possible, analysis shows that their second innings was actually more abject than the first, considering conditions had become better for batting and England were effectively missing the teeth of their attack. For the past two Test matches India have lacked stomach, fight and basic common cricketing sense. While Dhoni continues to be an enigma with the bat, his unorthodox style at times effective, his wicket-keeping and captaincy have been shoddy at best. The way that India have sucummbed to Moeen Ali’s spin, being such proficient players of the art, is not just concerning but perplexing. The same feeling surrounds Dhoni’s terse, uncompromising and uninformative press conferences. And why hasn’t Kohli been working to rectify his glaring problem outside of the off stump?
The Oval is generally considered a good ground for pace bowlers, especially early on in the Test. It is also thought to take more spin than most of the pitches around England and so Moeen Ali will again be important. England have struggled at the venue since 2009, losing to Pakistan and South Africa but drawing with Australia. The managed to thump India by an innings and 8 runs at the ground in 2011. Small chances of rain are predicted across the five days.
BEST: Top England Batsman 1st Innings, Alastair Cook 4/1
Despite still having a few problems with the bat and still searching for an elusive hundred that has been long overdue, Cook made marked improvement in Southampton that are bound to pay off sooner rather than later. He has two first innings hundreds at the ground in his last four Tests played at the Oval, so a sneaky wager on Captain Cook may just be the best bet of the Test.
VERDICT: England 5/4
The hosts seem to have the mental edge at this stage of the series and I don’t expect a resounding comeback on the part of the visitors. Although there is, again, rain predicted, it doesn’t look as though much time will be lost. England only needed three days in Manchester. Back the hosts at a shade above even money.
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