OLD TRAFFORD: If India have worked as hard on their game as they have to get James Anderson punished in the previous week, they will almost certainly win at least a session at Old Trafford, which they could not do in the third Test. The visitors had a nightmare in Southampton: their lead bowler was passed unfit before the toss and the rest of the cast was flat, they dropped catches and mis-fielded, and their batsmen got out soon after they got in. MS Dhoni’s glass was certainly half-full when he said of his batsmen, “getting starts is more difficult that converting starts.”
India had 13 double-figure scores at Ageas Bowl but Ajinkya Rahane’s 54 was the highest. They had 11 partnerships over 20 but only three over 50 and none more than 74. A first-innings score of 330 is respectable, but it won’t win Tests unless the opposition collapses, and England had amassed 569. The batting problems, however, seem more fixable than the bowling worries. Apart from Anderson and Stuart Broad, England’s back-up seamers did not trouble the Indian batsmen in Southampton, and the visitors should back themselves to negotiate Moeen Ali’s offbreaks better than they have done in previous Tests.
The challenge for Alistair Cook’s team will be to replicate their flawless efforts at Ageas Bowl. England’s out-of-form batsmen made runs, two out of the three new players they brought in were successes, and their spinner proved he was no part-timer. A second performance of such magnitude would be proof that the first one - which ended a winless run of 10 Tests - was not merely happenstance. England have not won successive Tests or a series since the summer of 2013, and this is their last opportunity to score a victory until the 2015 World Cup.
In the spotlight: Sam Robson has not yet done enough this summer to suggest he has succeeded where Nick Compton, Joe Root and Michael Carberry failed, in making the opening slot vacated by Andrew Strauss their own. Robson had one century and three low scores in two Tests against Sri Lanka, and after a half-century against India on a lifeless Trent Bridge track, he has not passed 30 in his next four innings. With England taking a hiatus from Test cricket at the end of this series until April 2015, Robson potentially has four innings to ensure he isn’t forgotten. Moeen Ali is faring marginally worse than Robson with the bat in this series, but all anyone is talking about is his 15 wickets.
Can any combination of Indian bowlers take 20 wickets in a Test? No one was asking that question after Lord’s, but it has almost become rhetorical after Southampton. With Ishant Sharma injured, Bhuvneshwar Kumar tiring, Mohammad Shami averaging 73.20 for five wickets, Pankaj Singh luckless, and Ravindra Jadeja being outbowled by Moeen Ali, the lack of depth on India’s creaking bench has been exposed, as many thought it would be over five Tests. There is talk of offspinner R Ashwin and fast bowler Varun Aaron bolstering the attack, but Ashwin averages nearly 75 in away Tests and Aaron hasn’t played since his debut in 2011.
England played the near-perfect Test in Southampton, but Chris Jordan’s performance - his lithe slip catching apart - had plenty of room for improvement. He did not bat, and when he bowled he posed almost no threat and went wicketless. If the Old Trafford pitch is fast, England could give Steve Finn a comeback, but they will probably stick with their successful XI.
England: Alastair Cook, Sam Robson, Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Chris Jordan/Steve Finn, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, James Anderson.
India: M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan/Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, Varun Aaron/Pankaj Singh.
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