India brace for litmus test against England on their Test comeback
Mithali Raj (l) and Heather Knight. © Getty
"There's always pressure when we play Test cricket. I think it is just the fact that it is a rare occasion for us. We are conscious of the fact that we want to play well. We obviously want to win. It is the first and foremost thing we want to do in the next four days," said England seamer Kate Cross, when asked whether there is additional pressure to do well when they don the whites, ahead of the fixture against India, which will begin on Wednesday (June 16).
As it has been written and discussed on multiple platforms, this will be the first time England play Test cricket against a non-Australian team since 2014. The last time, too, was against the same opposition, who themselves are making a comeback in the format after seven years.
While the focus has been significantly around India's comeback in Test cricket, England, too, have their set of issues to iron out. They have a packed 18 months ahead; and, as their skipper Heather Knight said, this Test match is crucial for them in the lead up to the away Ashes series later this year.
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England have picked a strong 15-member squad for the Test match, and Knight has a good headache as she now has to pick a seam attack from a large pool of players - Anya Shrubsole, Katherine Brunt, Kate Cross, Natasha Farrant, and Emily Arlott. In addition to this, she will also have the services of her deputy Natalie Sciver.
Judging by the media interactions so far, Shrubsole, Brunt and Cross are likely to play along with either one of Farrant and Arlott. Both Knight and Cross have been mighty impressed by them. While Arlott's pace is something England might want to use when they go down under, Farrant's left-arm angle could be crucial against India in swinging conditions.
The last time England won a Test match at home was in 2005, and Brunt was the player of the match. She took nine for 111 and helped England beat Australia by six wickets. However, she and Shrubsole have played only one Test each at home against India and do not have a good record. Brunt took two wickets in the 2006 Test, and the latter has only one scalp to show from the 2014 Wormsley Test.
In fact, Cross was the pick of the seamers for England from 2014, where she took six for 71. Knight will need her three frontline seamers at their best to set the record straight in the upcoming Test match.
As far as the batting goes, the top five pick themselves with Knight confirming that Lauren Winfield-Hill will open the batting alongside Tammy Beaumont. Knight and Sciver will complete the top four, with Amy Jones slated to walk in at five. Who slots into the lower middle-order might depend on the conditions at play, but it seems the in-form Sophia Dunkley and Georgia Elwiss are front-runners.
For India, the litmus Test lies in getting the team combination right. India has played only two Test matches in the last decade, compared to seven by Australia and six by England. Hence, there isn't too much experience for them to fall back on when picking their playing XI.
And that is why India will need Smriti Mandhana, Punam Raut, and Harmanpreet Kaur to step up and ease Mithali Raj's burden. Their contributions will be crucial in a batting line-up that is likely to be a combination of experienced and young players.
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Both Mithali and Kaur have hinted at the selection of Shafali Verma as an opener, which implies Jemimah Rodrigues might miss out. In that case, the top five looks settled with Verma, Mandhana, Raut, Raj and Kaur. Taniya Bhatiya is likely to don the gloves at number seven. Raut and Raj, India's steadiest and most technically proficient batters in that line-up will be expected to bat for long periods, with others batting around them.
India went in with five specialist bowlers - four seamers and a spinner -in 2014. With Jhulan Goswami, Shikha Pandey and Ekta Bisht retaining their places in the XI, Deepti Sharma's debut is all but confirmed. Which one of the two seam options India choose, the extra pace of Pooja Vastrakar or the swing of Arundhati Reddy, is something one has to wait and see.
When India were reeling at 64 for six in 2014 on day one at Wormsley, it was crucial contributions from Goswami and Niranjana Nagarajan that bailed them out, helping them snatch the lead by the skin of their teeth. While this may be at the back of the mind's of the coaching staff - the need to pick bowlers who can contribute with the bat - they will be well aware that winning the Test will require the bowling attack to take 20 wickets.
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It is always going to be a gamble. Both Knight and Mithali have extensively spoken about the difficulty of captaining in this format as they hardly have any experience playing First-Class matches at the domestic level. Knight had said that the ebbs and flows of the game will be different and that she might have to make on-field decisions accordingly. With this series following the points system as that of the Ashes, both the teams will be keen to start with a win in the Test match.
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Over the past month, team India and the BCCI have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. That is why this Test match is more significant for India than the hosts. The tourists, it seems, have far more at stake. It's not fair, but those are the cards they have been dealt. A win here, at Bristol, could mean that the demand for more Test cricket for the Indian team becomes louder. Whereas, anything less might mean things slow down a bit, as we have seen in the past.
Either way, a big win is due for Indian cricket, and Mithali Raj & co. will be aware of it
England: Heather Knight (c), Emily Arlott, Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt, Kate Cross, Sophia Dunkley, Sophie Ecclestone, Georgia Elwiss, Natasha Farrant, Amy Jones, Natalie Sciver (vc), Anya Shrubsole, Mady Villiers, Fran Wilson, Lauren Winfield-Hill
India: Mithali Raj (c), Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur (vc), Punam Raut, Priya Punia, Deepti Sharma, Jemimah Rodrigues, Shafali Verma, Sneh Rana, Taniya Bhatia (wk), Indrani Roy (wk), Jhulan Goswami, Shikha Pandey, Pooja Vastrakar, Arundhati Reddy, Poonam Yadav, Ekta Bisht, Radha Yadav.