If you look at the ECB website and search England fixtures then you’ll notice something strange. We know that England will be touring Sri Lanka and India this winter but there’s no mention of either trip. It’s the same story on the BBC fixtures list. The current white ball games in South Africa are advertised but the next official England men’s fixture is a home series against the Lankans in June.
The reason, of course, is that we’re living in strange times. The winter tours aren’t officially ‘on’ yet. And in the case of the much anticipated Test series in India, we don’t actually know if this will be played in India or the UAE. All we know for sure is that England won’t have time to pop across to Pakistan in the next few months as hoped. There’s simply no room because of tours that haven’t actually been confirmed yet. Bizarre.
Even if the tours do actually go ahead though, and one assumes that they will, the action is bound to be a little surreal. There will be nobody watching in Sri Lanka, as England’s legions of fans (who comprise the majority of spectators) will be hunkering down at home, and there won’t be many watching England against India either. We might be used to this in the UAE, where crowds are usually as sparse as good ideas at ECB headquarters, but it will feel a bit hollow if no spectators can attend the games in India. Their Test crowds don’t rivals ours but you often see a splattering of cricketing purists in attendance.
Fortunately, however, predicting the outcome of these tours is an easier task. Or at least it is on paper. Most people expect England to win in Sri Lanka and get beaten, probably comprehensively, against the Indians. The former are a mess whilst the latter are often poor away but usually unassailable at home. Will England find it easier if the games are moved to a neutral venue? Possibly. But unless that venue just happens to be Headingley in May then I still don’t fancy their chances.
I fear that Joe Root’s team will find it tough whether they play in India or the UAE. Slow pitches, canny spinners, and English batsmen rarely mix well. And after seeing us struggle against Pakistan in places like Dubai over the years – visions of Saeed Ajmal still haunt me to this day – I doubt the story will be any different against Ashwin and Jadeja. Can England be competitive? Maybe. But the smart money will be on the ‘hosts’. I’d be using free bet offers rather than staking any hard currency on England at any venues that favour slow bowling.
Although England won in Sri Lanka last time out, we usually only succeed in Asia when we can meet fire with fire. In other words, when our spinners are just as good as the opposition’s. When Sir Alastair Cook’s side triumphed in India in 2012/13, Swann and Panesar, who took 37 wickets between them at an average circa 25, presented as much of a challenge to India’s batsmen as Ojha, Chawla, and a rather less experienced Ashwin did to England’s. Will any combination of Bess, Rashid, and Leach (if he’s up to travelling in the pandemic) prove so effective? I doubt it.
Furthermore, England’s batting line up in 2012/13 boasted the likes of Cook, Pietersen, Bell, Trott, and an emerging Joe Root – all of whom played spin competently or very well. It will be a very different line up this time. Burns and Sibley both struggle against quality slow bowling at times, Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope are wet behind the ears, and Root simply isn’t the same player these days. The only batsman I’m not particularly worried about is Jos Buttler who generally plays the spinners well.
Maybe this is why England are determined to get Jonny Bairstow involved in the Test team again? It’s interesting that many pundits are now spinning a narrative that Jonny has been unlucky and deserves his place back. We’ve heard that he’s improved his technique, and has become less vulnerable to deliveries nipping back into him, but replays of his dismissal against Olly Stone in the T20 warm up in South Africa would suggest that his method looks as susceptible as ever.
Having said that, Bairstow did pretty well when England toured Sri Lanka not long ago. He scored a century at No.3 and he’s reputedly one of England’s better players of spin. The naked statistics, however, don’t really support this hypothesis. Jonny averages a respectable 40 in India but only 22 in the UAE and 31 in Bangladesh. He’s hardly Younus Khan. What’s more, we shouldn’t forget that India have some pretty useful quicks. They will be targeting the traditional gap between Bairstow’s bat and pad quite ruthlessly.
Fortunately for England, the tour to Sri Lanka will at least give them some good preparation. The selectors and management should learn a fair bit about their various options. Who should be the No.1 (and No.2) spinner? Is a Burns / Sibley opening pair too fallible in the conditions or should they consider opening with Crawley? One hopes that Joe Root might recapture his form away from quality quick bowling too.
It would be strange, however, if England decide to drift away from the usual suspects they like so much. One imagines there will be frantic conversations behind closed doors trying to cajole Moeen Ali back into the Test arena. I’d also expect Bairstow to play (even as a specialist batsman) ahead of any newcomers like Dan Lawrence which will frustrate many I’m sure.
However, let’s not forget that this has been a strange year, we’re living in strange times, England’s national selector is a strange chap, and England’s coach likes to select odd looking line-ups from time to time. So don’t be entirely surprised if England turn up in Colombo with four keepers, six seamers, and Phil Neale opening the batting.