England face arguably cricket’s toughest challenge as they play an India side unbeaten in home Test series since 2012 – but with Bazball and Ben Stokes, there is hope; follow first Test in Hyderabad with live blog on Sky Sports’ digital platforms from 4am Thursday
Image: England play India in five Test matches across January, February and March
What is the toughest challenge in sport?
Pipping Manchester City to the Premier League title? Defeating Novak Djokovic in a Grand Slam? Predicting what Ronnie O’Sullivan will say next? Convincing everyone VAR has been good for football?
It may end up being beating darting sensation Luke Littler – but right now you could make a strong argument that it is winning a Test series in India. Tasks don’t get much more formidable.
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England XI for first Test
Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (captain), Ben Foakes (wicketkeeper), Rehan Ahmed, Tom Hartley, Mark Wood, Jack Leach
Only two away sides have managed that in the last two decades (Australia in 2004, England in 2012), with India winning 16 Test series in a row at home since they were downed by Sir Alastair Cook’s men 12 years ago. They have played 46 games on home soil in that time, winning 36, drawing seven and losing just three.
With high-class batters, spinners that turn you dizzy, a seam attack that now surely rivals anything else in the world game and a fanatical home support, India have been nigh on impenetrable.
Former England seam bowler Steven Finn says the upcoming tour of India will be the toughest test the side has faced
Teams have landed blows. Australia won the first Test in 2017 and the second last year before India fought back to claim 2-1 triumphs on both occasions. England, helped by Joe Root’s double hundred and a majestic James Anderson over, took the opening Test in 2021 only to then tumble to a 3-1 defeat.
Grazes for India but nothing close to a knockout punch. If anyone can deliver that, though, maybe it’s England’s merry band of Bazballers. India have played good teams before, yet perhaps none with a game plan quite like this.
Sky Sports Cricket’s Nasser Hussain discusses what to expect when England play India
“India is the land of opportunity and that’s what sits in front of us, we’ll take the positive option,” said England head coach Brendon McCullum, after whose nickname Bazball is named. “Other teams might be better, but we want to be the bravest.”
Bazball will ask questions of India
England’s aggressive brand of cricket has been questioned, principally during last summer’s Ashes series – Ben Stokes’ Edgbaston declaration, the brainless attacking of the short ball at Lord’s. But you cannot deny it works.
They have won three and drawn two of their five multi-match Test series under Stokes and McCullum. If they had scored two more more runs in New Zealand and encountered a lot less rain in Manchester during the Ashes, they may have been five from five, adding victories in those series to home successes over the Black Caps and South Africa and a historic 3-0 sweep in Pakistan.
England Test series in India 2024
- First Test – January 25-29 (Hyderabad)
- Second Test – February 2-6 (Vizag)
- Third Test – February 15-19 (Rajkot)
- Fourth Test – February 23-27 (Ranchi)
- Fifth Test – March 7-11 (Dharamshala)
England Test squad for India series
Ben Stokes (captain), Ollie Pope (vice-captain), Rehan Ahmed, James Anderson, Gus Atkinson, Jonny Bairstow, Shoaib Bashir, Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ben Foakes, Tom Hartley, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Ollie Robinson, Joe Root, Mark Wood
In Stokes, England have a skipper who does not believe in lost causes, a player who can take the game away from the opposition with the bat, and a man whose captaincy skills masterminded that win over Pakistan – shrewd bowling changes and field placings, delayed use of the new ball so that reverse swing could take effect.
In Root, they have an excellent player of spin – and decent deliverer of it, too, as his 5-8 on the 2021 tour testifies. In Zak Crawley, they have an opener who has added consistency to his quality.
In Anderson – who has been left out of the series opener – they have Test cricket’s most prolific seam bowler and one with a fine record in India. In Mark Wood, they have a paceman who can clock in excess of 95mph. Just ask Australia about that.
And in Bazball – which England refined after the reckless batting at Lord’s, proceeding to mix the demanded aggression with a greater level of intelligence – they have a style that will ask India questions they may not have faced before.
Questions the hosts must answer, for the first two Tests at least, without superstar batter Virat Kohli (personal reasons) and seam bowler Mohammed Shami (ankle injury).
India look to have big edge in spin department
So, there are some reasons why England might win. Here are some why they probably won’t.
Michael Atherton expects spin bowling to be the big difference between England and India
The strength of the opposition. Despite Kohli missing the opening stanzas, India’s batting will still feature Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer and even if Shami will be a big absence bowling-wise, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel could still create carnage.
England will know not to overlook the threat of pacemen Bumrah and Siraj but it is the danger spinners Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar will pose that could be of most concern.
That trio is why Sky Sports Cricket pundit and former England captain Michael Atherton makes India strong favourites to extend their heavenly home record.
Off-spinner Ashwin claimed 32 wickets in four Tests in the 2021 series against England while left-arm spinner Axar scooped 27 in three, including four five-wicket hauls.
Image: India spinner Ravindra Jadeja has taken 275 wickets in 68 Test matches
Axar’s fellow left-armer Jadeja did not play at all due to injury but is back now to make life even more difficult for Stokes’ tourists, whose frontline spinners, Jack Leach aside, are greener than the lawns of Wimbledon or Plymouth Argyle’s home kit.
Jadeja, Ashwin and Axar have taken a combined 815 Test wickets. England’s spin attack has just 191 – 124 for Leach, 60 for part-timer Root, seven for Rehan Ahmed, and none for the debuting Tom Hartley. Leach has also not played since June following a stress fracture of the back.
Will preparation hinder England?
Add in the fact that England have lost one of their best players of spin on the eve of the series following Harry Brook’s withdrawal for personal reasons, that Stokes is unlikely to bowl after knee surgery and that Anderson is coming off an innocuous Ashes series, then this really does look like mission improbable – and whether their preparation, or lack thereof, helps or hinders them in India remains to be seen.
Hussain says Harry Brook’s withdrawal from England’s Test tour of India is ‘a big blow’ but insists duty of care is the priority
The decision to arrive just three days before the opening Test in Hyderabad was criticised by former England seamer Steve Harmison, who said that call “absolutely stinks” and added that Stokes’ men deserved to get beaten 5-0, but McCullum explained the value of a 10-day training camp in the United Arab Emirates instead.
“The guys walked away from Abu Dhabi with a huge amount of confidence we’ve prepared as well as possible,” said McCullum, who scored 225 for New Zealand against India in Hyderabad in 2010. “All you’re trying to do is get guys in the frame of mind where they feel 10 foot tall and bulletproof when they walk out to play.”
This England side care little for warm-up matches anyway. They prefer golf, team-bonding and vibes. Their success under Ben and Baz owes much to skill but also positive thinking and freedom, believing anything is possible and that you should have a hell of a lot of fun trying to achieve it. Bazball has made believers of us all.
Former England off-spinner Graeme Swan offers his advice to the squad ahead of the India series
Winning in India is unlikely but England specialise in the unlikely: scoring 500 on the opening day of a Test, chasing 378 to beat India at Edgbaston, somehow forcing victory over Pakistan on the most docile of Rawalpindi pitches.
Beating India on their own patch is improbable, sure, but impossible? Not with this lot.
England XI for first Test: Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (captain), Ben Foakes (wicketkeeper), Rehan Ahmed, Tom Hartley, Mark Wood, Jack Leach.
Follow England’s five-Test series in India across Sky Sports’ digital platforms with live blogs and reports.