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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 August 2018

Openers must protect Kohli from Anderson, and Ashwin should be selected: What India must do to win Test series in England

Ahead of first Test, starting in Edgbaston on Wednesday, here are four things India need to ensure if they want to win five-match series

Getting England captain Joe Root out will be key to Virat Kohli's chances of leading India to a Test series win. Getty Images
Getting England captain Joe Root out will be key to Virat Kohli's chances of leading India to a Test series win. Getty Images

A striking difference between the captaincy styles of Virat Kohli and his predecessor MS Dhoni has been the intent to attack.

Dhoni was famously, and sometimes annoyingly, prudent. He took his chances but they were more calculated risks. In contrast, Kohli has demanded quicker runs from his batsmen and wickets from his bowlers irrespective of circumstances. He has also tinkered with the playing XI far too many times.

Kohli has all but thrown caution to the wind, which could be the outcome of age, personality type and facts on the ground: he has a more settled side at his disposal than Dhoni did halfway through his captaincy.

A combination of factors – India's Test form, England's problems in this format, and ideal weather and pitch conditions – could encourage India to come out all guns blazing in England.

But there are a few things the tourists themselves need to set right before they can expect to win their first series in Old Blighty in 11 years.

Karun Nair may not be a bad shout for the No 6 spot in the Indian XI. AP Photo
Karun Nair may not be a bad shout for the No 6 spot in the Indian XI. AP Photo

Play six genuine batsmen

India's batting line-up looks strong on paper: there are three openers vying for the two opening slots – Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and Lokesh Rahul; Cheteshwar Pujara is settled at No 3; Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane dominate the middle order.

Then the picture blurs a little. Either they play a sixth genuine batsman or an all-rounder depending on the state of the series and pitch conditions.

Given that the wickets in England will most likely produce results, India should go in with six batsmen (excluding the wicketkeeper) and four bowlers. The reason is simple: for all the talk about a settled side, India's batting is not there yet – at least not in foreign conditions. In contrast, however, the bowling unit looks strong and capable of taking 20 wickets, especially if off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin is given a game.

Selecting Hardik Pandya as the all-rounder gives the illusion of balance. He is still not good enough a batsman in tricky batting conditions, neither is his bowling Test-class yet. Instead, India should either play Rahul at No 6 – if Dhawan and Vijay are asked to open – or Karun Nair, who is the only player in the squad to have scored a triple-century in Tests (against England in 2016).

The longer India's top order can shield Virat Kohli from James Anderson, the better for India. Getty Images
The longer India's top order can shield Virat Kohli from James Anderson, the better for India. Getty Images

Don't expose Kohli to Anderson

Whoever opens the batting for India needs to curb his enthusiasm for shotmaking, at least early in the innings.

James Anderson and Stuart Broad form the wiliest opening attack in the world. Anderson might be past his peak while Broad has had problems with consistency. But off days are rare for the pair, and they have played 256 Tests and claimed 957 wickets between them.

Perhaps influenced by their experience in the annual Indian Premier League Twenty20 competition, all three of India's specialist openers have lately displayed a tendency to play risky shots too early in their innings. It is one of the reasons why India were beaten in South Africa last season.

Rahul, in particular, is guilty of throwing his wicket away after getting his eye in. The last of his four Test hundreds came against England in December 2016. He has since scored 10 half-centuries, which reveals his consistency as much as it confirms he can lose concentration.

Spending time in the middle will not only help the top order score more runs, it will also serve to take the shine off the ball and tire the strike bowlers. This will in turn make it easier for the main batsman – Kohli – to score runs and dominate the England attack. The earlier he is exposed to the wares of Anderson and Broad, the more pressure he will come under.

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Read more:

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Graham Caygill: A history of India's poor starts to cricket Test series in England

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England v India predictions: Virat Kohli to inspire his side to Test series victory

Comment: India must use Jo'burg Test win as inspiration ahead of England tour

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Indian batsmen will do well to not underestimate England spinners Adil Rashid, left, and Moeen Ali. Getty Images
Indian batsmen will do well to not underestimate England spinners Adil Rashid, left, and Moeen Ali. Getty Images

Do not underestimate England's spinners

Adil Rashid's recall to the England Test side has polarised opinion, with critics pointing to the adverse impact it will have on the morale of county cricketers, whose staple is red-ball cricket.

Then there is the question over how effective he will be: the red Duke ball, used for Tests, drifts more in the air compared to the white Kookaburra ball, which Rashid could find harder to control. Also, will he be as effective against opposition batsmen who do not have to score off every ball, like they do in limited-overs cricket?

Regardless, that is not something India need to worry about. What they need to do, however, is have a strategy on how to blunt the impact of Rashid and Moeen Ali. Moeen had success during India's last Test tour in 2014, taking 19 wickets in five matches at an average of 23.00, mostly due to the Indian batsmen's overconfidence.

They cannot afford to have such a cavalier attitude against either bowler. Part of winning the contest with the bat will be to milk the duo for runs, while going after the weak link – Sam Curran or Jamie Porter, one of whom will be England's third seamer.

Ravichandran Ashwin, left, should be Virat Kohli's go-to man for wickets in the Test series. AP Photo
Ravichandran Ashwin, left, should be Virat Kohli's go-to man for wickets in the Test series. AP Photo

Pick Ashwin ahead of Kuldeep

Kuldeep Yadav may have enjoyed a meteoric rise during the past year to become India's No 1 spinner in limited-overs cricket. He also may have taken five-fors in the recent T20 and one-day international series against England. It still does not mean he should be picked ahead of Ashwin for any of the five Tests.

Unless he gets injured or in the unlikely event fails to take wickets, Ashwin is one of two players – Rahane being the other one – whom India cannot afford to drop from the XI.

Ashwin is the man with 316 Test wickets under his belt – not Kuldeep – and he is the one who should be considered India's strike bowler and Kohli's go-to man for wickets, especially in the absence of injured seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

Much has been made of England's pitches, which could favour spin due in large part to the hot and dry weather conditions in the country. Ashwin, though, has played the game long enough to not get overly excited. His albeit limited experience of playing county cricket for Worcestershire this year will also come in handy.

Ashwin is a far superior red-ball bowler to Kuldeep who, at this stage of his career, is not yet ready for the long-form game, judging by the way Joe Root picked him for runs in the last two ODIs. Like in Rashid's case, taking wickets in limited-overs cricket is not a guarantee for Test success.

Getting Root out early will be key to India's victory bid, and Ashwin will be a better proposition than Kuldeep to take his wicket.

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