England were meant to be gaining momentum now, rest and rotation behind them, in their grand plan to peak in time for this winter’s Ashes. It has not quite worked out that way.
Instead they go into the first Test of their marquee series against India at Trent Bridge on Wednesday closer to square one than the crowning moment of Joe Root’s captaincy.
This could even be the beginning of the end for Root if defeats in India last winter and against New Zealand earlier this summer are followed by another fragile display here.
Joe Root and Chris Silverwood look on ahead of England’s first Test match against India
The England captain bumps fists with India skipper Virat Kohli at Trent Bridge in Nottingham
Certainly it is rare for India, who have not won a series in England since 2007 and the jelly-bean affair, to start off as favourites against an England team usually so formidable on the green grass of home.
But Virat Kohli knows this will be the best chance he will ever have of claiming the scalp of England here to add to that of Australia won earlier this year by his team largely without him.
It is India who are by far the better prepared team, having spent three weeks on holiday in England after their World Test Championship final defeat by New Zealand and then the last three preparing quietly in Durham.
The bulk of England’s players, in contrast, have barely played at all for weeks, certainly not with a red-ball after the ECB’s ill-considered decision to throw all its eggs this peak summer into a Hundred shaped basket.
Root and Chris Silverwood, who have been trying to build towards these next 10 Tests against India and Australia ever since they came together after the last Ashes in 2019, have certainly been unlucky.
The pandemic and injuries have thrown their best laid plans into confusion, culminating in the withdrawal of the man on who so much depended in Ben Stokes.
And that has left England looking vulnerable and brittle, particularly in their batting, on the return on Wednesday of ‘real’ cricket after such a frustrating and artificial summer.
Not that there seemed much of a sense of anticipation at Trent Bridge on Tuesday. It all seemed strangely downbeat, with Root having taken the unusual step of speaking to the media a day early and India not even bothering to train a day out from the match. This huge series all seems like an after-thought rather than the most important – and lucrative – show in cricket.
Root admitted last week it was hard to see Ben Stokes suffering with his mental health
Jimmy Anderson, stepping into the England captain’s media shoes, acknowledged how unusual and almost surreal the build-up to this big day has been.
‘It’s not been normal,’ said Anderson, who should be licking his lips at the appearance of a green looking pitch at one of his most successful grounds. ‘But that’s just been the nature of this summer unfortunately, there’s not been much red-ball cricket.
‘We’ve just had to manage as best we can and I got a couple of games in with Lancashire – well, one that didn’t rain – and the rest of the time I’ve been trying to bowl in and around other cricket that’s been going on.
‘It’s not been ideal but we’ve had a couple of days here where the intensity has just gone up a notch. It feels like everyone is really excited and hungry for the challenge of Test cricket coming back.’
Anderson, of course, took his 1,000th first-class wicket in that appearance for Lancashire and, now turned 39, he renews what should be a mouth-watering contest with Kohli that has seen honours even in two previous tours here.
Jimmy Anderson acknowledged how unusual the build-up to this big day has been
‘I’m definitely excited to be playing against him again,’ said Anderson. ‘You always want to challenge yourself against the best in the world and he’s certainly that. We know how important he is to India both as a captain and batsman.’
To which Kohli, who looked as if he’d rather still be on holiday than talk to the media on Tuesday, just said ‘I will bat against him,’ when asked about a key match up in the outcome of this contest.
How many seamers line up alongside Anderson remain to be seen. The indication on Tuesday was that England were leaning towards picking Jack Leach as part of a five-man attack even though there was moisture in the Trent Bridge pitch.
That would mean Jos Buttler batting at six, with Sam Curran at seven and Ollie Robinson, making his second Test appearance after his first was overshadowed by the emergence of his historic racist and sexist tweets, at eight.
Only if the surface looks sure to favour seam will Mark Wood feature, with Anderson and Stuart Broad certain to play, as England ponder going back on the all-pace policy they employed, with the Ashes in mind, at Edgbaston against New Zealand.
One player who looks likely to miss out is Ollie Pope, with England reluctant to rush him back after a thigh injury even though he had a long bat in the nets on Monday. Dan Lawrence, rather than Jonny Bairstow, is set to come in.
A poor series result against India will pile the pressure on Root ahead of this winter’s Ashes
It is worth remembering coach Silverwood favours flat pitches for home Tests, again with a view on the away Ashes. At least he did, before defeat by New Zealand cranked the pressure on him and England up several notches.
‘I have no idea what type of wickets we’re going to get this series,’ insisted Anderson. ‘In my experience, in 20 years playing for England, we often ask for certain pitches and what turns up on the day is quite different.’
How England could do with a Trent Bridge swing special from Anderson on Wednesday and how Root could do with a performance of substance from his top six. Otherwise we could all be in for a long six weeks.