Why India will challenge England this summer

February 1, 2018

India's cricket team is currently the number one-ranked Test side, but one of the queries critics have had is whether this status, based on weighted statistics linked to performances over the last three years, is truly justified.

Undoubtedly, Virat Kohli's men have proved unstoppable on slow, turning pitches like those enjoyed at home or in neighboring countries. The side went into the recent tour of South Africa on the back of eight successive series wins, but these were, it must be noted, mainly at home. 

Recent wins on tour have included a 3-0 whitewash of neighbouring Sri Lanka and a victory in the West indies. With the famous pacy pitches of the Caribbean as much a fading memory as the battery of formidable fast bowlers that once operated on them, these series were still played on slow and low pitches, where Kohli and his fellow batsmen could score heavily and star spinners Ravi Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin could bowl their side to one win after another.

Because of this, critics looked ahead to the acid tests to come, with trips to South Africa, England and Australia. If the Ashes were any indication, the series down under will be played on slower pitches than normal in Australia, albeit against some very quick bowling. England will bring a bit more bounce and more sideways movement, while South Africa tends to offer a bit of both.

With South Africa the first port of call, all eyes were on the matches in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg. 

Some might have said it was rather predictable that India's batsmen, so brilliant at home, struggled against the pace of an attack that lost Dale Steyn to injury, but still offered fierce pace through Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and new cap Lungi Ngidi. South Africa won the first Test in Cape Town by 72 runs and the second at Port Elizabeth by 135 runs. India's winning run was at an end.

However, there is some context to consider. South Africa are the number two side in the world and they have got there on the back of their superb pace attack, not their often-brittle batting. It was hardly a surprise that the going should be tough for India's batsmen and it also proved so for the home side. Moreover, in making 153 in the second Test, Kohli at least showed he can make big runs in different conditions. 

Moreover, the final Test brought a chastening experience for South Africa, as India won a low scoring game by 63 runs on a Johannesburg pitch marked 'poor' by the ICC. Batsmen from both sides were repeatedly hit as the ball bounced unevenly. It might be imagined that the South Africans would cope better, but they did not, collapsing dramatically in the second innings. 

Fans booking corporate hospitality for the England v India Test at the Kia Oval in August will not expect a pitch like Johannesburg, but some will remember the greentop prepared at Lord's when India last visited in 2014. That was meant to favour England, yet India won there. 

Of course, in the event, it was an England who triumphed 3-1 on that occasion. Coming off the back of an Ashes whitewash and a home series loss to Sri Lanka, that was either a fine comeback by England, a failure by India, or both.  

Nonetheless, the result at Lord's in 2014, as well as Johannesburg last month, may act as reminders that producing the antithesis of a slow subcontinental turner is not the guaranteed route to victory against India. 

Indeed, it is worth noting that the series in South Africa saw the lowest average runs per wicket of the side winning a series since 2000, and in Jasprit Bumrah, the Indians have found a new ball bowler who could be highly effective in English conditions.

To lose a low-scoring series 2-1 in South Africa is no disgrace at all. India will come to England this summer with confidence that they will still have a good chance of justifying their top ranking, even against a side with a formidable home record.

Image: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images, from Keith Prowse subscription

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