It would be tempting to place the Ahmedabad pitch and ball on centre stage, given that both stole the critics’ attention after the two-nights-only performance that was the third Test. But then, that would be akin to allowing some wonky scenery to distract from the actors and there’s so much more at play here. Crucially for India, they cannot afford to lose the grand finale at the same venue if they are to reach the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in June. But they also need only a draw to get there.
England, whose heavy defeat inside two days last week denied them any prospect of making it to the big dance, have shifted the narrative towards what drawing the series 2-2 would mean. Given that India have not lost two Tests in a home series since 2012 and the margins of their two most recent victories – 317 runs in the second Test and 10 wickets in the third – it would be quite something for England to turn things back around.
To do so, however, they need an underperforming batting order to lift. While this match, starting on Thursday, will be played during the day with a return to the red ball, both sides expect more of the same from the sharp-turning surface at Narendra Modi Stadium. The fact that Joe Root scored more runs in the first innings of the series than his entire team did in the next five puts their plight in sharp focus and when he joined the majority in struggling with the bat in the most recent match, they needed someone else to step up. Zak Crawley did that to some extent, asserting himself early for his half-century. Given that regular opener Rory Burns made way for Crawley’s return from injury and that an unlikely swap back is the only realistic change of batsmen available, they need improvement from within the existing lineup.
By their own admission, England fluffed their lines on selection for the third Test, thinking the pink ball under lights would offer more to their seamers and going with only one specialist spinner in Jack Leach as Root picked up a five-wicket haul with his part-time offspin. That puts Dom Bess in the frame for a recall, having been left out of the previous two matches, where India’s spinners dominated. Axar Patel now has 18 wickets at 9.44 from two career Tests – the two that England have lost during this series – and R Ashwin has played all three for 24 wickets at 15.70. There has been some illness within the touring camp, although all trained on Tuesday and Root was confident of having a full squad available.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Dom Bess was dropped for the second and third Tests, having taken 17 wickets at 22.75 across both of England’s Tests in Sri Lanka and the first Test in Chennai – all of which England won. In that time he also averaged 22.75 with the bat and, if England’s third-Test innings of 112 and 81 are anything to go by, runs down the order would be welcome.
Despite his creditable record on this tour, there was a feeling that Bess had at times bowled ugly. He sent down 19 full tosses in the opening Test in Chennai and, assessing his own first-day five-for in Galle, he said: “I didn’t feel like I bowled very well”. But given that he is young and learning in the toughest of conditions, there were legitimate questions over which would cause the greatest damage to his confidence, sticking with him or dropping him. Leaving him out was easy enough to explain when England had someone with the experience of Moeen Ali to replace him for the second India Test and plumped for a seam-heavy attack in the third. But with Moeen sent home to rest and spin very much in play here, he could well be called upon to regain England’s faith.
It’s perhaps harsh to question Virat Kohli given that he has three half-centuries from his past six Test innings, including his second-innings 62 in response to his first-innings duck at Chennai. But such is the weight of expectation that the fact he has gone 11 innings since his last ton – against Bangladesh in late 2019 – that questions have indeed been asked. Scores of 11, 72, 0, 62 and 27 against England suggest he will be hungry to make an even bigger contribution, especially with the chance to propel his side to the WTC showcase. But while his satisfaction with the pitches in this series seems at odds with his returns, he is unconcerned. Having described the batting from both sides in the third Test as “not up to standard” he said on the eve of this match that he felt “no haste or desperation” personally, as long as his side is winning.
With Bess a likely inclusion, one of England’s seamers would make way, possibly Stuart Broad, who is wicketless from the two matches he has played. Having acquitted himself well with four wickets in the second Test in Chennai, Olly Stone could come in for Jofra Archer, who has taken four wickets from his two games, although Mark Wood is also waiting in the wings after resting for the first half of the series.
With Jasprit Bumrah out for personal reasons as India manage his workload, Umesh Yadav could come into the India line-up, fit again after injuring his calf in Australia and seeming to hold the edge over Mohammed Siraj. Otherwise, it is hard to see the hosts tinkering further with a successful side.
England (possible): 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Dom Sibley, 3 Jonny Bairstow, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Ben Foakes (wk), 8 Dom Bess, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Jack Leach, 11 Stuart Broad / James Anderson
India (possible): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (captain), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rishab Pant (wk), 7 Ravichandran Ashwin, 8 Washington Sunar, 9 Axar Patel, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav
Pitch and conditions
A similar surface to the last is widely anticipated for this Test and, from a result perspective, that ought to serve India reasonably well, even if Joe Root’s remarkable bowling figures are a reminder that they’ll also need to bat better to guard against mishaps. Temperatures forecast in the high 30s Celsius throughout makes for one certainty, it’ll be a scorcher.
Stats and trivia
- India have not lost a series at home since 2012, vs England
- Should Root extract a victory from his men, he will pull clear of Michael Vaughan as England’s most successful Test captain with 27 wins
- India have not lost two Tests in a home series since 2012
- Yadav is four wickets away from becoming only the fifth India fast bowler to pick up 100 wickets at home
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo