At the end of the T20 series against South Africa, India coach Rahul Dravid cautioned his players on what to expect in their next assignment, the fifth Test against England, which due to circumstances forced by Covid is being played as a one-off after the first four games were played last summer.
India had it relatively easy last year when the Virat Kohli-led team led the series 2-1 before the last game was postponed. The cricket legend warned new skipper Rohit Sharma and Co to brace up for a transformed England side opposed to the one they largely dominated in August-September, 2021.
While the England faces will be familiar when they take the field at Edgbaston on July 1, India will have to be prepared for a team with a changed approach. The timid, conservative playing style that India under Kohli exploited and applied pressure, skipper Sharma will face opponents who are now fearless, aggressive and ready to take risks under the new pair, skipper Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum.
Nothing explains it better than England’s performances in the build-up. In 2021 too, England began the season with a home series against New Zealand. But unlike the 0-1 defeat last year, they are 2-0 up with a game left.
In the first Test of the previous series, the Joe Root-led side had a chance to go for win. They declined to accept the challenge after Kane Williamson dangled the carrot by setting a target of 273 in 75 overs. The hosts played it safe, making 170/3 at a run-rate of 2.42, their first two wickets scoring 56 runs in 30.3 overs to kill the contest. The lack of intent was glaring. It came back to haunt them in the second Test when they collapsed in the second innings to lose the match and series.
It had a chain effect. They stuttered in the first Test against India at Nottingham as well. After just about managing a draw thanks to most of the final day’s play being washed out, they lost the second and fourth Tests, though they won the third.
England are unrecognisable in the ongoing series. In the second Test, NZ set a target of 299 and England chased it down in 50 overs, hitting at a run-rate of 5.98. In the first Test, set a target of 277, they fought back from 69/4 to win by five wickets.
The 2021 debacle against NZ had triggered disappointing runs against India, Australia and West Indies, leading to an overhaul of the England set-up. The appointment of McCullum and Stokes, both charismatic personalities with an attacking mind-set, has led to a change in mind-set.
The impact of McCullum and Stokes is being seen in England’s play. While India were locked in the T20 series against South Africa, their think-tank kept an eye on the Trent Bridge Test. The action on June 14 made everyone take note of how Jonny Bairstow (136, 92 balls) and Stokes (75*, 70 balls) led the chase.
That is what made Dravid declare that it will be a different proposition from last year when India were on the cusp of a famous series win before Covid positives in their camp forced the postponement of the final Test.
“England are playing well at the moment and it is going to be a bit different from last year when England were probably a little bit on back foot. They have played some good games and we have a pretty good side as well,” Dravid said on Sunday.
England, apart from playing in familiar conditions, also are having a perfect build-up. England play New Zealand in the third Test from June 23 while India have to make optimum use of the warm-up game against a County side from June 24-27 at Grace Road, Leicestershire.
Dravid’s challenge is not just getting the side into the right frame of mind, but most important is that the coach must find the best batting combination after injury to KL Rahul. India’s strong show in 2021 was built their openers Rohit Sharma and Rahul blunting the England new-ball attack.