Series crying out for more than off-field drama
Thursday, July 17, Lord's
Start time 1100 (1000 GMT)
England have endured three footslogging Tests this summer against Sri Lanka and India on unresponsive pitches. Something was bound to give - if not the interest of the crowds then the patience of the players. So it is perhaps understandable to some degree that the build-up to the Lord's Test has been dominated by allegations of an unseemly spat between James Anderson and Ravindra Jadeja in the drawn first Test at Trent Bridge. Tempers were frayed, the sledging no doubt ripe. Welcome it or not, it will add additional edge to the series.
Whatever conclusion the ICC draws, the series is crying out for more than off-field drama. England's sense of well being will only be lifted by pitches less subcontinental in nature. To suspect vestiges of colonial arrogance in those who complain they do not want to see Indian-type pitches in England is to miss the point. England cricket watchers want conditions that suit their Test traditions and, indeed, their landscape: surfaces with a bit of life, occasionally periods of swing, seam and eventually spin. Patience might well be a virtue but it is not patience that has kept Test cricket in England alive, but activity.
To contest the entire series on surfaces discouraging for pace bowlers would be to play into India's hands, especially as England have no specialist spinner of ready-made Test standard. The call up of Simon Kerrigan to the squad for the first time since his nerve-ridden debut at The Oval last season does not change that. Kerrigan is the leading English-qualified wicket-taker in Division One of the Championship, but it is a thin field.
India's unsuccessful run of away Tests since their last victory, against West Indies in Kingston in June 2011, now stretches to 15. Any continued absence of R Ashwin would delight England no matter what surface they play on; it does not require too many subtle variations for spinners to receive the "mystery" accolade as England agonise over the eventual successor to Graeme Swann.
Players to watch
Ian Bell has not adapted happily to his role of England's most treasured batsman since Kevin Pietersen found himself forced into exile. Bell is now perceived as England's chief entertainer, but for all those deft back-foot cuts, his form since the end of England's victorious Ashes series is mediocre. It all suggests that England's new order is not resting entirely easily with him. Suggestions that he should bat at No 3 were resisted, but life at No 4 is beginning to look a little insouciant. England need a response - and quickly.
Two Sri Lankans have already got their name on the Lord's honours board this summer - Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews - and both celebrated in a manner that suggested this tradition really does matter to the players. Virat Kohli, as would any world-class batsman, must share ambitions to be present there. This is his first Test at Lord's and everybody expects him to combust sooner or later. We await to see if he can produce an innings to grace the summer.
Rotation has been a word much in vogue for England since the national selector, James Whitaker, hinted that five Tests in 42 days might entail that England use all six pace bowlers at some point during the series. But when and who? Anderson's ICC charge has clouded the picture and nobody wants to be rotated out of a game at Lord's. It would be no surprise if Kerrigan's place in the squad as a specialist spinner was to appease Alastair Cook, such has been his limited faith in Moeen Ali, but to play him would be a high risk.
England (probable) 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Sam Robson, 3 Gary Ballance, 4 Ian Bell, 5 Joe Root, 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Matt Prior, 8 Ben Stokes, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Liam Plunkett, 11 James Anderson.
Keen students of India's net session saw enough to convince them that Stuart Binny would retain his place ahead of Ashwin. Binny made runs at Trent Bridge, but that did not remove the feeling that Ashwin would have been an infinitely better bowling option. Ashwin could theoretically replace Jadeja as well - though India are hardly likely to drop an individual they are presenting as wronged, in the form of Anderson's alleged physical threat, at Trent Bridge. Unchanged seems likely.
India (probable) 1 M Vijay, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 MS Dhoni, 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 Stuart Binny, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Mohammed Shami.
Pitch and conditions
Mick Hunt, the Lord's groundsman, has a bottomless independent spirit and he will not be influenced by the debate about pitches going on around him. The considerable amount of green left in the surface two days out was probably a joke dreamed up in a local hostelry. But he will not have been happy about the lack of carry in the Lord's surface against Sri Lanka last month and he will not want a return to the run of six Test draws between 2006-08.
The forecast is for warm temperatures, as high as 29C on Friday, slight risk of thundery showers over the weekend, but it generally looks like the summer has come to St John's Wood.
Stats and trivia
- Ian Bell's average in the last 17 Test innings without Pietersen in the side is 28. However, he enjoys batting at Lord's, where he averages 57.
- England's winless run now extends to nine Tests since their victory against Australia at Chester-le-Street last August, their worst run since 1992-93.
- Mick Hunt, the Lord's groundsman, or "head of grass" as he sometimes puts it, extended his range of expertise beyond cricket last winter when he visited a school in Donaghmore, Northern Ireland, to advise on the state of their muddy gaelic football pitches.
For more stats on Lord's, click here.
"It is probably a little bit of a tactic by India. We are surprised it is a Level 3 incident after hearing both sides of it. Both MS and I have responsibilities as captains of the sides to make sure [a deterioration in relationships] does not happen. We have a responsibility to people watching the game."
England captain Alastair Cook on the Anderson-Jadeja issue
"In cricket you won't hear me ever say something like that. It's a difficult sport. People talk a lot about form, but you can be in bad form and regain it in 10 minutes. We have our own process, we have our own plans. What is important is for us to execute those plans."
MS Dhoni, on whether India feel they can get Cook out early again
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo