India is tough. It is the hardest place to tour for any side, even harder than the hostile environment of an Ashes series down under. For any team, it is a test in the truest sense of the word in difficult conditions where the Indian players have honed their skills to perfection.
India are a formidable side at home. Since England’s historic victory in 2012-13, no team has won a Test series there, and during that time the hosts have won 16 series and lost just three of 46 home Tests, twice to Australia (Pune in 2017 and Indore in 2023) and once to England (Chennai 2021).
Being able to play spin is one thing, to do it on a red-soil turning deck in oppressive heat is quite another. England’s fate during the five-match series will not define their abilities under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, but they will want to showcase their attacking style under the harshest environment in world cricket. However, they were handed a boost ahead of the series when Indian talisman batter Virat Kohli dropped out of the first two Test matches for personal reasons.
In 2012-13, England spun their way to victory with a two-pronged attack of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar who were equal to the Indian spin attack. With the bat, the resolute defence of Sir Alastair Cook and Nick Compton at the top of the order ground down the bowling attack, supplemented by the threat of Kevin Pietersen to attack in the middle overs.
Bazball England is very different. There is little chance they will try to emulate the manner of the 2012-13 success; instead, they will try to take the attack to India, probably from the outset. It will be a style of cricket that India will expect but not one they have faced before.
Aside from the first match in Hyderabad and the final Test in Dharamsala, the stadiums will be smaller, and the likelihood of a spin-friendly surface is high.
Former England fast bowler Steven Finn, who was a part of the series 11 years ago, explained the difficulties of the conditions: “I don’t think we’re going to get sell-outs these Test matches.
“I don’t think the crowds are going to be huge, so there’s not that going against you.
“I think the heat is very tough, being able to back up spells as a seamer myself, session after session, day after day, is very difficult and sapping.
“When you get the ball in your hand and it’s reverse-swinging, you need to have maximum energy on it, so you need to be as fit as possible to be able to do that.
“But I think the hardest thing this team is going to encounter is if we get turning pitches, which we anticipate – albeit the 2016 series was quite high-scoring. There’s going to be this aggressive approach against the ball that’s spinning and bouncing as it might do.”
There are concerns with England. Although Steve Harmison’s comments saying the side “deserved to lose 5-0” for their preparation, which involved time spent in a training camp in Abu Dhabi and no warm-up matches in India, might be too extreme, there are lots of players with few minutes under their belt.
Jack Leach, who will be crucial as England’s frontline spinner, has not bowled since the standalone Test against Ireland in June, before he was ruled out of the Ashes with a stress fracture. Ollie Robinson has not bowled since the third Ashes Test when he sustained a back spasm, and 41-year-old James Anderson has also not played since the conclusion of that series.
England have selected the young Rehan Ahmed, who has just one Test under his belt, and two uncapped players in Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir. The latter has only played six first-class matches, although he is highly regarded by those in the England set-up with his height and ability with the ball.
None of those offer the threat that Swann and Panesar did just over a decade previously but they will have to perform. However, India have some of the best spinners in the world at their disposal with the likes of Axar Patel, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
When asked about England’s spin offering, Finn said: “We have what we have, don’t we? You can’t just magic up a Swann and Panesar off a tree because if England could, they would have done it by now.
“It’s going to be a challenge. They’ll be played aggressively, the Indians will try and get the miles into the seamer’s legs and I don’t think the spinners are going to be shown much respect.
“But I think that’s something that could play to their advantage. It’s going to be a challenge. I’m not going to sit here and say they’ll get whacked everywhere because who knows what’s going to happen?
“But Jack Leach, after not playing since June, it’ll be tough for him, and then two young spinners who’ve not played Test cricket. It’s going to be tough for them. But if there is an environment where they could succeed, I think this England team is the one.”
England are going to be uncompromising in taking their attack to India, which could unsettle the bowlers, and also put runs on the scoreboard despite the conditions. Overall it should be a fascinating series of the highest level and it will be the toughest challenge this Bazball side has faced yet.
However, despite the odds being stacked against any England side travelling to India overseas, should they succumb to defeat, this series will not define the team, nor should it diminish all of their achievements so far.