2pts Joe Root top England first innings batsman at 5/2 (Sky Bet)
The biggest talking point ahead of the fourth Test, one which England must win in order to draw the series, will focus almost exclusively on the pitch in Ahmedabad. The curator came in for heavy criticism from all bar the home camp after England were well beaten inside two days in the second Test at the same venue just over a week ago, and all eyes will again be on the surface this week.
With India now leading the series 2-1, it is conceivable that the hosts will request a good batting wicket on which their strong top order can bat England out of the Test, but perhaps they will prefer to prey on their opponent’s obvious weakness against spin in conditions that they have proven ill-equipped to deal with.
Between them, home spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel have claimed 33 wickets in the last two Tests after England stormed to victory on a flat pitch in the opening Test in Chennai.
That victory seems like a lifetime ago now, and England’s lack of first innings runs since has ultimately been the reason why they will likely go on to lose the series. For all the criticism of the wicket offered up in the second Test – and Test matches should not be two-day events – England were fortunate to have first use of that surface and scoring 112 on day one of any Test match, regardless of conditions, just isn’t good enough.
That’s not to say England are hiding behind the pitch. In fact, Captain Joe Root has been at pains to accept that his side’s shortcomings with the bat are to blame for those two heavy defeats and it is hard to see things changing dramatically in the space of just a few days.
Dates: March 4-8 (9.30am local time, 4am GMT)
Venue: Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad
TV Channel: Channel 4
England’s biggest concern remains the top order. Following a good 87 in the first Test, Dom Sibley has struggled for runs and a workable method against such a well-disciplined Indian bowling attack, similarly Rory Burns and now Jonny Bairstow.
Sibley’s habit of continually getting caught on crease – neither playing deep in his crease off the back foot or getting far enough out to the ball to smother the spin – leaves him looking like a sitting duck, while Bairstow will seemingly forever be vulnerable to the ball sliding into his pads, just as has been the case against pace throughout his career.
After 73 Tests, England’s patience might be starting to wear thin with him. With Burns now exiled, Zak Crawley did at least show promise when returning to the side last week, but with Ben Stokes short of runs and Ollie Pope another too often rooted to his crease, the signs aren’t positive for the tourists.
For all his glovework has been typically excellent, Ben Foakes doesn’t look to have enough gears to be batting down at number seven – particularly not in this line-up that has a long tail and little stability above him. That’s not to be overly critical of Foakes; he has a sound defensive technique for these conditions that his teammates would do well to learn from, but I’m not sure he’ll ever score his runs quickly enough at this level to shape matches for this current England side.
It’s what makes the absent Jos Buttler such a valuable asset and snug fit in the current line-up. If England want stability and durability in their middle order, perhaps moving Foakes up a couple of spots in the order might be worth some consideration for the fourth Test, for the benefit of team and individual.
The fact that Crawley’s first-innings 53 last week is the only half-century registered by an England player in the last two matches illustrates the problems that Root and coach Chris Silverwood need to address, and a recall for Dan Lawrence shouldn’t be completely out of the question.
Despite meagre returns in the first two Tests, Lawrence’s quick feet and clear game-plan set him apart from many of his England colleagues and I really think the visitors need to have a long, hard think about the make-up of their starting XI, and batting order, going into this must-win encounter.
All of the above are options, but unfortunately, the early noises coming out of the England camp are that Root and Silverwood won’t be quite so bold, meaning that the top England first innings batsman market is at least easier to get a handle on.
By way of underlining Root’s superiority over his colleagues: the Yorkshireman has scored 333 runs in the series so far at an average of 55.50. Next best is Stokes with 146 at 24.33. Of course, those numbers are heavily shaped by Root’s 218 in the first Test, but he has continued to look like much the best of England’s batsmen since with his sweep-dominated game-plan and ability to rotate the strike standing out.
Given his exceptional performances in Sri Lanka in the preceding series, there can be little doubt that ROOT is a modern master in these conditions and Sky Bet’s 5/2 for him to be England's top first innings runscorer in the fourth Test – given the question marks surrounding his colleagues – is rock-solid and certainly big enough to lure me in.
It is proving unwise to look away from Jack Leach in the top England first innings bowler market, but without knowing with absolute certainty what conditions will be like in Ahmedabad, I’d rather sit this market out and hope to snap up anything in the region of 15/8 or better in the second innings. The wicket is sure to take spin by then and Leach claimed four wickets apiece in the second innings of the first two matches.
Aside from conditions, India don’t have much to worry about, with their batting appearing much more capable of overcoming conditions than their opposition and the aforementioned spin duo of Ashwin and Patel expected to fight it out for top bowler honours again.
There is no big value to be had in that market, while Rohit Sharma’s excellent series so far has seen his price shrink considerably in the top India first innings runscorer market. Once again, Sky Bet stand out at 7/2, but with Sharma already in the book for top series batsman honours, I’m happy to cheer him on without further financial investment.
Instead, I’ll go solo with Root in a Test match which England need to somehow produce a performance of resilience and skill that would surpass anything they have managed in the last 12 months. As ever, they will look to their captain to lead from the front.
Posted at 1400 GMT on 01/03/21
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