The five-Test series is a curious beast. Eagerly anticipated by devotees of the Test game, fondly remembered for creating some of the greatest narratives and dramas that sport can produce, and, more often than not in recent times, overwhelmingly disappointing. Many five-match rubbers of late have left the fans wanting considerably less, defying the First Law of Showbiz (a regulation that is, admittedly, conclusively superseded by the Second Law of Showbiz - Cash in While You Can).
Longer series have often seen one team exert an early stranglehold on readily collapsible opponents, resulting in somewhat predictable, monochrome cricket, often played out on predictable, monochrome surfaces that exacerbate home advantage. Struggling teams have had little time to recover, learn and respond, with modern scheduling intent on leaving glaringly insufficient space between Tests, and making up for it by adding vast, aching, unnecessary voids between limited-overs matches.
The much-maligned two-Test series has produced multiple minor classics in its schedule of contractual-obligation fulfilments, but the two most recent five-Test contests between England and India, and the vast majority of Ashes series in the past 30 years, have fizzled towards flumpy denouements. (I know the 2014 series was technically still alive when the final Test began, but India might as well have played it by email.)
Cricket could do with a timeless masterpiece. It is under constant assault from its deadliest predator and foe - cricket. Some administrators seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that their sport is rubbish, and that the roaring success and coffer-jangling profitability of (a) intricately plotted long-form TV series, and (b) mind-blowingly complex computer games, is but a commercial blip in humanity's bobsled-run towards meaninglessness, and that what people really want is facile, forgettable, unengaging gobbets of pre-digested bilge.
(Rumours currently circulating in the England area suggest that a new competition is in the pipeline in which the playing area will be replaced by a four-sided giant TV screen showing episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, with the winning team to be decided by a randomly selected child picking from one of three different milkshakes: strawberry for the home team, chocolate for the away team, and vanilla for a tie or rain-affected no-result. Scientists claim this could be the most accessible format of any sport yet devised by human beings.)
What I hope for from the forthcoming series is for at least six of the following ten things to happen:
- The series to be played on a variety of different pitches, providing a wide range of challenges and opportunities for batsmen and bowlers.
- A genuine, series-long contest, ideally building towards a final-Test decider.
- A team recovering from a collapse. At least once.
- No fast bowlers slumping to the turf in an exhausted heap in the fourth or fifth Tests, screaming at the heavens: "Why?"
- No one using the phrase: "Just go out and play his natural game."
- Bowlers given more respect when it comes to handing out Man-of-the-Match awards.
- When a commentator inevitably says, "Well, that's all we have time for today, they've only managed 85 overs in the six and a half hours' play, so the remaining five overs will be lost to the game", another commentator leaping to his feet, ripping his tie off, and shouting: "Why? Why on earth should those overs be lost? And why does no one in cricket understand that the paying punter does not, in general, want to watch advanced-level dawdling?"
- At least one day of the series finishing on time, with all the scheduled overs bowled.
- Home advantage being a marginal gain rather than an insurmountable skewing of cricketing probability. We are close to cricket requiring neutral groundsmen. The surface has more influence on the game than potentially home-favouring umpires. More and more countries have shown they cannot be trusted with the temptation.
- People who are not already cricket fans noticing the cricket.
In terms of the result, I think Jimmy Anderson's performance holds the biggest of the many keys to the series. In England's last six home series (from the 2015 Ashes to the two-Test encounter with Pakistan in May), Anderson has taken 88 wickets in 18 Tests at an average of 16.5, with seven five-fors, while maintaining an economy rate of 2.5 per over. If he maintains a similar return, England should win; if India can blunt him to something approaching normality, and ensure the Anderson key does not fit the Indian top-order lock, they could well prevail. Depending, of course, on the unlocking effectiveness of their own principal keys.
The hinted-at-but-still-incomplete resurgence of Stuart Broad could also be extremely key-ish. Since his eight-wicket splattering of Australia in the fourth Test in 2015, he has taken 52 wickets in 17 home Tests, averaging a decent 29.6, but with no five-fors and, in the most recent 14 matches, no four-wicket innings.
Cheteshwar Pujara might prove to be another significant key, or at least the knobbly bit on the end of the key. He has been a bulwark at home, but has averaged a fraction under 26 in his nine Tests outside Asia since the 2014 England tour, when he began batting as if in a cocoon of immovable certainty, and ended shrouded in befuddlement. If he, and India's openers, succeed, Virat Kohli has a far greater chance of golden-key-waggling success. India's captain is more vulnerable against the new, swinging ball - something he has in common with almost every single batsman who has ever played the game. The platform-builders are generally as influential in Test cricket as the platform-bestriders.
Other potential key-holders include: whichever of India's spinners are entrusted with the bamboozlement England's batting; England's change bowlers; India's seamers; England's top and middle order. In other words, anyone involved. Especially Ajinkya Rahane (who averages 52.6 in 18 Tests outside Asia, the second-best of any Asian Test player who has played ten or more matches outside his home continent, behind the soft-handed, granite-stomached Rahul Dravid [54.5 in 68 Tests]). And Jonny Bairstow - still without a hundred after keeping wicket in a match for England (he has only passed three figures in the opening innings of Tests), but with all the appearance of someone who is on the verge of doing some incredible things in all formats.
Such are the excitements and uncertainties in the anticipation of a five-Test series. I hope there are still doubts and unresolved issues as the Oval Test begins in September.
Two niche stats to keep an eye on during the second Test, at Lord's
1. Ishant Sharma, in his two Lord's Tests, has taken a combined tally of 0 for 189 off 56 overs in the first innings, and 11 for 133 off 45 in the second. Only Ravi Shastri has bowled more balls, or conceded more runs, in the first innings of Lord's Test matches, without taking a wicket (0 for 202 off 66, in three Tests).
One more second-innings victim this year will put Ishant top of the Most Wickets Taken in Second Innings at Lord's by Visiting Bowlers (he is currently tied with Shane Warne, whose 11 second-innings wickets were taken over four Tests); of the 28 bowlers who have taken ten or more second-innings wickets at Lord's, Ishant has the second best strike rate (behind Dominic Cork) and fifth best average.
2. India could field the exact same top five that played at Lord's four years ago (M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane), a match that was (a) an absolute classic; (b) somewhat bafflingly, the last Test Liam Plunkett played (he took four wickets, all of them top-six players, and scored a match-shifting unbeaten 55); (c) a bizarrely false dawn, as India proceeded to be abjectly thrashable in the final three Tests. If India pick those same five players, they will become the first visiting team to pick the same top five in consecutive Lord's Tests.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer