The final day of the second Test at Visakhapatnam began with hope. England had eight wickets remaining and a day to bat, unlikely but not impossible. Those hardy souls who awoke at 4am in the UK to watch on TV or listen on the radio, only the winter dark for company, had all that hope extinguished before the sun had come up as England slid to a 246-run defeat. The rest of the series now looks a huge test for Alastair Cook’s men but they can turn it around with a change or two.
A poor session on the second afternoon, four wickets lost for just 29 runs, cost them this game. That they delayed India’s march to victory for so long was impressive but ultimately futile, the character of this team evident in defeat. It was shown in how hard Stuart Broad ran in on one leg in India’s second innings, how brilliant Ben Stokes’s catch was to remove Virat Kohli, how many dot balls Haseeb Hameed and Cook faced on the fourth evening.
But they have a number of important decisions to make ahead of the third Test in Mohali. First among these is what to do with Ben Duckett. After a promising start to his international career in Bangladesh, R Ashwin has England’s number four in his pocket, a situation that cannot be tolerated for the good of the team nor the player himself. Jos Buttler should take his place.
Ordinarily, young players should be given a fair crack of the whip to adjust to, and prove they can handle, the rigours of Test cricket. Duckett has only played four Tests, all of which have been in alien conditions of which is he unused to and has had no experience of, so it is a tough call. The last thing England want to do is to descend in to crazy panic mode as the Australian selectors have in making six – yes, six – changes to their Test squad for the final Test against South Africa.
Yet it is the right one. Duckett looks lost at the crease and a technical flaw in defending the ball spinning away from him has appeared, something that Ashwin will continue to probe should he remain in the side. The left-hander also seems to be stuck between playing his natural game, attacking, innovative and unorthodox, and getting ‘stuck in’ and batting time. A 16-ball duck on the final day proved he has yet to find a method on these pitches and subjecting him to further trial by Ashwin will do the player more harm than good.
Buttler’s inclusion is also overdue. He is an x-factor cricketer, perhaps the best in white-ball cricket England have ever produced, and Trevor Bayliss is known to want to get him back in the side. Despite not having played a first-class game since last year, he has extensive experience of Indian conditions from the IPL, has faced the Indian bowlers before and is a proven performer on the international stage. If a good guide to selection is to do what your opponents would least like, England should pick Buttler. India will be wary of his ability to change a game.
That is not the only selection issue. Broad’s injury will almost certainly rule him out of the Mohali Test but Chris Woakes, rested for the game in Visakhapatnam, is a more than adequate replacement with the ball and will lengthen the batting too. The most pressing question is not with Broad’s replacement but whether Cook and Bayliss persist with the left-arm spin of Zafar Ansari or replace him either with off-spinner Gareth Batty or another seamer, probably Steven Finn.
Ansari only bowled 12 overs in the first innings of the second Test and was not used at all in the second. After a solid performance in Rajkot, he bowled poorly and with little control at Visakhapatnam. Adil Rashid’s improved performances negate the need for another spinner to turn the ball away from India’s right handers and Batty’s greater experience and consistency should be utilised. On a good surface, the 38-year-old has the smarts and discipline to contain India’s batting line-up.
A complicating factor is that Mohali has been pinpointed by the tourists as the one pitch where their seam bowlers will find most joy so they may want to go with an extra fast bowler. Recent precedent suggests this may not be the case though; India’s spinners shared 19 South African wickets during the previous Test there. Kohli was also vocal in his disappointment at the grass left on the Rajkot pitch so it is unlikely much will be left on the Mohali one. Bayliss and Cook will have to decide between Batty and Finn once they assess conditions but they should beware of preconceived ideas as to the make-up of their side.
Despite there being three matches left, the Mohali Test feels like, if not a must-win, a must-not-lose game for England. It will be almost impossible for them to come back from 2-0 down. An England win is not beyond the realms of possibility either. They have shown enough in the series so far to prove they can compete with India and if they can win the toss and bat, they will have a chance to put pressure on the home team.
In order to win, they have to get their selection right. There is no need to panic but change they must: Buttler and Batty in for Duckett and Ansari.