Joe Root has called on England to strive for a ruthless performance in the fourth Test against India, starting on Thursday at the Oval, with Ollie Pope, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood all pushing to enter the captain’s swirling selection thoughts.
England’s innings victory at Headingley on Saturday leaves the summer’s marquee series locked at 1-1 but an unforgiving schedule of three Tests in three weeks, plus Jos Buttler’s paternity leave, could force as many as three changes to a winning team.
“Now is when the hard work starts,” said Root, who – after his third successive century last week, his sixth in 2021 – is poised to rise to the top of the International Cricket Council Test batting rankings when the points system is updated on Wednesday. “We’ve got to look to go even further, dig deeper and really start to go through the gears. A world-class side like India, led by Virat Kohli, I expect nothing less than a response. It would be naive to think otherwise.
“We’ve just got ourselves back to level and, if we find ourselves ahead of the game at any stage, we must get ruthless again.”
Buttler’s absence at the Oval leaves Jonny Bairstow to keep wicket and opens up a spot at No 5 for Pope, the Surrey right-hander who averages more than 100 in first-class cricket on his home ground. England are also trying to gauge whether Ollie Robinson or the 39-year-old Jimmy Anderson is starting to run on empty and in need of a breather.
Wood is fit again after sustaining a shoulder injury during an impressive second Test at Lord’s; so, too, Woakes after what Root called a “nightmare” 12-month absence caused by a catalogue of misfortunes that included various Covid isolation periods and a recent bruised heel from slipping on some stairs.
Woakes may well replace the misfiring Sam Curran if England want an all-rounder at No 8. But any decision over resting Anderson or Robinson – Wood’s possible route back after Craig Overton’s six-wicket return in Leeds – is not easy given the new-ball rapport the pair have struck up in Stuart Broad’s absence.
“Trying to manage workloads alongside performance is something in the current climate, with the games coming thick, that is always going to be tricky,” said Root. “You come off a win like last week and the continuity of confidence – trying to replicate a similar performance – you’re trying to balance that with making sure you don’t blow someone out and injure them. It’s really tricky.”
Playing the final three Tests of the series would be a significant ask of Robinson during the 27-year-old’s first season of international cricket, but seven wickets at Headingley makes him the form horse. The evergreen Anderson will simply not want to miss out this week, nor the finale at his home ground of Old Trafford.
It remains to be seen if Buttler, another Lancashire cricketer albeit seldom seen wearing the Red Rose, will be back by then. Having voiced concerns about going on the Ashes tour – the issue of quarantine for players and their families is still yet to be resolved – the 30-year-old’s Test future appears uncertain.
Asked if Buttler may have just played his last Test, Root replied: “I don’t see that being the case. I see someone that is desperate to perform well in the Test arena. He loves the Test game and he’s a big part of our team.”
On the question of whether Bairstow could make a bid for the gloves full-time, Root said: “We all know what he is capable of with the gloves. He’s never let anyone down. [But] Jos has been our No 1 keeper for a long time now and he’s made absolutely the right decision to be at the birth of his child.”