The warning signs were there for India before the third Test. Yes, they won dramatically at Lord’s but England did dominate for chunks of that game and only a mad hour on the last day cost them. India got out of jail.
One of Virat Kohli‘s big problems has been the balance of his side, and the unlikely tail-end resistance of Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, when England lost the plot, did nothing to change that.
Rishabh Pant has looked one place too high at six in English conditions against the Dukes ball, but he has been batting there because of India’s lack of a seam bowling all-rounder. Hardik Pandya might have been the answer but he’s had injuries and his red-ball game has not progressed.
Virat Kohli had no answer to England’s swing bowling during the fourth Test at Headingley
England swung the ball round corners but India’s seam bowlers did not swing the ball at all
But what India do have is an off-spin bowler ranked No 2 in the world and a batsman good enough to have made five Test centuries in Ravichandran Ashwin. He should have played at Headingley against England’s five left-handers and he must play at The Oval.
India could play six batsmen with Pant at seven, but in the absence of a Pandya-type figure that would leave them with four bowlers and Kohli doesn’t like that.
So the most likely solution is Ashwin will come in for a seamer, most likely Ishant Sharma who struggled at Headingley, and join Ravindra Jadeja in a more balanced looking side with a deeper batting line-up as long as Jadeja recovers from his knee injury.
What that does not do, though, is give India a bowler who can swing the ball when conditions dictate, as England did so brilliantly not just with Jimmy Anderson but also Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton. The demise of Bhuvneshwar Kumar has left India short of that type of bowler too, even though Shardul Thakur does swing the ball.
Ravichandran Ashwin should have played at Headingley and he must play at The Oval
At Headingley, England swung the ball round corners. Skilful as India’s seam bowlers are they did not swing the ball at all.
But the last thing England must do now is think they have done the hard work and write India off ahead of Thursday’s fourth Test in south London and the final match at Old Trafford — grounds which should suit their attack better.
Remember, they were bowled out for 36 by Australia in Adelaide late last year but came back to pull off a famous series win. And after Kohli had gone home, too.
India do have a lot of strength of character and fight, and central to that is their captain, even though Kohli has looked more like the 2014 version rather than the one who conquered English conditions and England’s attack in 2018.
Kohli has played at balls he could be leaving, he seems to have that slight technical issue I highlighted in these pages with the positioning of his back foot and he is not picking up the line of Anderson and Robinson.
England should not write India off as they have strength of character and fight
He did go through a spell on the third day, admittedly against an older ball, where he was leaving it well. But it’s harder to leave the new ball because it swings later, and he was out again on Saturday in a familiar manner.
Kohli is not sure whether to play or leave and whether to set himself for the inswinger or not. He doesn’t know what to do. It’s high class bowling and it’s not going to get any easier for him.
England do look stronger in their batting line-up for the changes they have made.
Jos Buttler’s absence at The Oval because his wife is expecting their second child has been easily remedied by giving the gloves back to Jonny Bairstow.
England could bring in Ollie Pope on his home ground as he is now fit and it would be the consistent selection
Then England could bring in Ollie Pope on his home ground as he is now fit and it would be the consistent selection, even though Shane Warne has advocated the bold option of Liam Livingstone.
England are stronger for the return of Chris Woakes to the squad now he is fully fit after playing for Warwickshire seconds and in the T20 Blast. And with Mark Wood coming back too they have options again in attack, with Sam Curran under threat.
These are two vulnerable batting line-ups but two seriously good attacks and that has made for fascinating viewing. But I just feel England have the edge now. It is one they have to make the most of in the final two Tests.