India vs England: Jofra Archer vs Indian Batsmen, R Ashwin vs Joe Root – Contests to Look Forward to
As India and England square off in the first Test of what promises to be a keen and engrossing series, these are some fascinating contests within the contest to look forward to:
Jofra Archer v Gill, Pujara, Rahane: The lithe and sinewy fast bowler has emerged as among the most lethal in the world since his debut less than a couple of years back. His contests with Steve Smith raised the 2019 Ashes series into an epic. Smith finished with 700-plus runs, but never quite mastered Archer.
There is little doubt that Archer, who can consistently rack up 145 kph, will be unleashed against India’s top order to hustle them with pace and bounce. In Australia, Gill, Pujara and Rahane weathered the pace storm from Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood admirably. In fact, in the last Test, they not only thwarted the Aussie pacers, but made them bleed.
Hot pace is not the only attribute which makes Archer such a difficult proposition. It’s also the daunting three-quarter length that he can hit consistently, as well get the ball to get extra bounce when he bends his back a little more. He is not averse to verbal jousts with batsmen, or testing them with short-pitched deliveries aimed at the chest and head.
Albeit in a different format, the IPL has provided him experience of playing on Indian pitches and bowling at Indian batsmen, which skipper Root will be hoping Archer exploits to the optimum.
Will Archer, and especially on Indian pitches, be a potent force?
He could be, unless tamed early in the series. Given the rotational policy that the England selectors are following these days, Anderson, Broad, Woakes and Curran may not play all the game’s. Archer looks the only pace bowler likely to play all four Tests at this point in time. Blunting his threat early would be a big gain for India.
Anderson and Broad v Rohit and Kohli: Controlled late swing poses danger to even the most accomplished batsmen. Anderson and Broad, with over 1000 Test wickets between them, are virtuoso artists where this particular skill is concerned. They not only move the ball either way at a pace which can still unsettle batsmen, but also have humongous experience to back their quest for wickets now.
For sure, conditions in India will not help them as much as they do in England, and this is borne out by bland stats. But Anderson has had some memorable performances in 2004 and 2012. In the lead in matches to this series, both he and Broad and were hugely successful against Sri Lanka, which makes their presence on this tour relevant, and not only of sentimental value.
I’m picking Rohit and Kohli here for different reasons. Where Rohit is concerned, he’s got a lot of runs since becoming an opening batsman but hasn’t been seriously tested by high quality swing bowlers for any great length of time. He’s probably at the peak of his prowess, and will want to take the battle to these bowlers, particularly when the ball is new.
Kohli had a traumatic time in 2014 against Anderson and Broad in England, struggling against swing and seam movement, lured into errors by his failure to read what they were up to. It remains the worst series of his career. Lessons quickly imbibed, since 2014 Kohli has made runs aplenty against England, both home and away, and made it a point to not give his wicket to either of these bowlers.
That said, Anderson at least has not been mauled by Kohli, as have some others. He’s kept the Indian captain watchful and respectful, which is success in itself. This is plausibly the last time we’ll see Anderson v Kohli – one of the great contests in modern cricket. It whets the appetite.
Swing bowlers of calibre can’t be treated casually even on flat sub-continent tracks. They test and probe constantly with nuanced changes in pace, line and extent of movement, use of the crease, and not the least, by accuracy which adds even more to the pressure on batsmen.
Anderson is pushing 39, Broad 35. Their knees may be knackered from hurling thousands of overs, but both have been bowling quite superbly in the past few years, getting better with age and even more passionate about success. To test their skills against the likes of Rohit and Kohli will stoke their ambition even further.
R Ashwin v Joe Root and Ben Stokes: Ashwin’s most recalled memory from the recent tour of Australia was the heroic, fighting , knock which helped India draw the Sydney Test. Tremendous effort, of course, but in many ways, his bigger contribution was in keeping run machine Steve Smith (particularly) and understudy Marnus Labuschagne on a tight leash in the three Tests that he played.
In the first two, particularly, he had Smith in knots with his length, line, guile, backed up by field-placing strategies that had the otherwise irrepressible Smith on tenterhooks and dismissed in single digits, which in turn sent tremors in the Aussie dressing room. With 12 wickets in the three Tests, Ashwin was a study in contrast to Nathan Lyon struggling to take wickets on his own home pitches.
Ashwin’s strength is not only in the repertoire of deliveries he has, or the constant experimentation he does, but in the great joy he derives in getting the better of batsmen, especially the big guns. He plans and plots, before a series, for a particular Test, before every over, possibly every ball.
If he can do to Root what he did to Smith – leaving him perplexed with his tactics and variations – it could severely dent England’s prospects. Root is not just England;s best batsman, but has been in ominous form in recent months, and has a hugely productive series on sluggish, spin-friendly pitches in Sri Lanka.
Having Ben Stokes’s measure is the other challenge Ashwin will be licking his spinning fingers for in this series. That off-spinner’s bowl better to left-hander’s is more cricketing cliché than truism, and more so when the adversary is Stokes, currently the world’s best all-rounder, with batting skills that can combine attrition with counter-attack quite brilliantly.
How Ashwin fares against these Root and Stokes could prove decisive in the series.