EDGBASTON: It feels like only a few weeks ago that Alastair Cook was batting off questions about his form and captaincy. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago. This time, however, it seems unlikely that India will roll over to have their tummies tickled, as happened in the Tests. They cannot be beaten in the ODIs and could claim a first bilateral series victory in England since 1990 with a third consecutive win at Edgbaston. It was in Birmingham last summer that India lifted the Champions Trophy, after MS Dhoni stuck an Ishant Sharma-shaped spanner in England’s well-oiled machine. Since then, England have lost 12 out of 20 completed one-day games and the failure to beat India will extend their run without a series victory at home (the last was against Australia in 2012) into a third year.
At the start of a lengthy one-day run-up to the World Cup, England are struggling to go through the gears. That will not be a surprise to those who have watched the two preceding matches against India. On both occasions, a modestly encouraging start against seam was rapidly and disconcertingly stalled by spin. England appear so buttoned up during the middle overs that it is a wonder any of the batsmen can bend over to take guard. The mid-innings longueurs were once accepted as a period when runs came at a trickle; now, with only four men outside the circle, there is a clear imperative to score boundaries as well. England are proven inept on both counts.
On Monday morning, the ECB tweeted a picture of batsmen practising in the nets against Merlyn. The least they can do is try to disrupt India’s spinners and force Dhoni to think about his strategies. The World Cup may take place in less spin-friendly environs (and it might be expected to turn again at Edgbaston) but, the way things are going, England will find two spinners deployed against them whether they are in Christchurch or Adelaide.
Plenty has gone right for India so far and Dhoni might appreciate a sterner examination of his team’s credentials before they return home. Cook will doubtless internalise the criticism, Ned Flanders-style, and prepare with even greater resolve to build the platform so beloved of England’s strategists. It is tempting to imagine him practising his best Frank Sinatra impression in front of the bathroom mirror, visualising the hoped-for day early next year when Cook can tell everyone England did it his way.
The Test series were a feast for Joe Root but he has been subsisting on a meagre diet in coloured clothing, managing 121 runs at 17.29 in ODIs this summer, since making his maiden century in the format on England’s pre-World T20 tour of the Caribbean. Coming in a No. 4, Root is viewed as being able to provide both solidity and a scampering increase in tempo. Little more than a year ago, he averaged 55.22 at a strike rate of 87.80 but both are heading in the wrong direction. Needs to prove England would be more stolid without him.
Things were beginning to look up for Virat Kohli at Trent Bridge, the ground where his bleak tour began with scores of 1 and 8 in the first Test. Aside from a half-century against Middlesex, his 40 in the third ODI is Kohli’s highest score in more than two months in England. He still managed to get himself out in frustrating fashion, however, flicking a half-volley straight to mid-on and then receiving a send-off from England’s soon-to-be-trounced bowlers. Kohli has only three more innings, at most, to leave a reminder of his quality.
Cook’s diagnosis after going 2-0 down the series was that the blueprint was sound but England needed a more solid foundation. If they want a banker for a top-order anchor, then it might be time to turn to Gary Ballance, who made 61 for Yorkshire when released for the Royal London Cup last week. Moeen Ali could also return to ODI pyjamas and attempt to burst India’s bubble again, possibly at the expense of Ben Stokes. Aside from the need to assess Mohit Sharma’s foot injury - he was restricted to bowling just three overs at Trent Bridge - India could well be unchanged. Umesh Yadav and Dhawal Kulkarni provide pace-bowling options if Mohit is not passed fit.
England: Alastair Cook (capt), Alex Hales, Ian Bell/Gary Ballance, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler (wk), Chris Woakes, Steven Finn, James Tredwell, James Anderson.
India: Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Ambati Rayudu, Suresh Raina, MS Dhoni (capt & wk), Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Mohit Sharma.
ISLAMABAD: All-rounder Shoaib Malik and top-order batsman Azhar Ali, and pace bowler Sohail Tanvir ...