Everyone can lament the margin of England’s defeat at Trent Bridge but maybe not the outcome itself. Beyond the dressing rooms the idea of any side taking a 3-0 lead in a five-match series is stultifying. So, as the circus descends on the Ageas Bowl, the series is alive with England 2-1 up and only a fool can regard the result of the fourth Test as a foregone conclusion. All the pointers led to an England victory at Nottingham and they lost by 203 runs. There is plenty to excite.
Thursday’s match is the third Test to be played at Hampshire’s out-of-town ground. The first, in 2011, against Sri Lanka was a rain-interrupted draw; England won the second against India in 2014 by 266 runs.
Then Moeen Ali took eight wickets in a high-scoring match, in which Gary Ballance and Ian Bell hit big hundreds. It was Jos Buttler’s first Test, so too that of Pankaj Singh, who has not been able to maintain such a high profile as his fellow debutant. Alastair Cook’s side arrived at Southampton stung by defeat in the previous Test and clinically blew India away. Somehow it feels that it will not be so straightforward for England this time. Runs were easier to come by in that series.
Ed Smith, almost for the first time in his brief career as chief selector, has resisted any surprising, eye-catching call-ups. He might have ditched one of his openers, Keaton Jennings being more vulnerable than Cook even though he has mustered 14 more runs in this series (and 94 in total) than his senior partner. In fact, Cook’s run-drought may have assisted Jennings’s survival.
Jonny Bairstow has been England’s highest run-scorer in the series, which helps to explain his inclusion even though he has a minor fracture of the middle finger on his left hand. That injury was obviously unfortunate but it may enhance the chances of a change that has already been considered by the England setup.
They can see the virtue of Buttler taking the gloves on a more permanent basis, not necessarily because he is a better keeper but to allow Bairstow to bat higher up the order. Bairstow has always wanted to continue as keeper, perhaps as an insurance policy, which the England hierarchy insists he does not need.
So it is possible Bairstow could appear at the Ageas Bowl as a specialist batsman, though this may not be a great idea. It is easy to underestimate the perils of playing when not 100% fit. Sod’s Law often applies: that ball that jumps off the pitch inevitably hits the injured finger, a nasty bounce in the outfield does the same even when the fielder is on the boundary. Moreover, for the player concerned there is always the nagging doubt of underperforming and failing to do oneself justice when playing while carrying an injury.
The long-term challenge for the England setup may be to persuade Bairstow of the virtue of becoming a specialist batsman up the order. In fact, this is a good time to do it. This winter the tours are in Sri Lanka and the West Indies; the former has always been a venue to favour spinners, the latter has become something similar in recent years.
In Sri Lanka especially the best place to bat is at the top of the order when the ball is hard and the pace bowlers are more likely to be in action. It becomes trickier to take charge at the crease in the middle of the innings when the spinners are happily in harness. The idea of inviting Bairstow to emulate his white-ball role as an opening batsman in Test cricket has some merit and for him the most attractive place to try this would be Sri Lanka.
James Vince is in the squad at his home ground as cover for Bairstow and he is accustomed to batting at No 3. If he plays, then Joe Root may revert to No 4, which would result in Ollie Pope dropping down the order – or out of the side. In fact, the latter course is more likely, since the argument to play Moeen is strong. He has hit a rich vein of form with bat and ball. It would seem daft not to tap into that just to maintain the notion of consistent selection.
Moeen would probably have to replace Pope or Adil Rashid, which highlights that the toughest selectorial decisions for this Test will be made, not by Smith, but by Root and Trevor Bayliss, who have the final say on who plays in the XI before the match begins.
India do not have so many selectorial puzzles. Even so, Virat Kohli, the outstanding batsman in the series by a massive margin – he has scored twice as many runs as anyone else and faced twice as many deliveries – may yet keep his record by changing his Test team for the 46th time in a row. It is possible that Bhuvneshwar Kumar, now fit again, may replace Mohammed Shami, while there remain doubts about the fitness of Ravichandran Ashwin.
For once the place of Hardik Pandya will not be open for discussion. He has enhanced his status as an all-rounder in this series, while demonstrating how it is possible for excellence in T20 cricket to be transferred to the five-day game if the ambition is there. Indeed, in a topsy-turvy week perhaps the most heartening news for those who cherish Test cricket came when Buttler said after scoring his maiden Test century at Trent Bridge: “This is definitely my proudest moment in an England shirt.”