England have won all eight of their Test matches against Bangladesh but they will have done very well if that 100% record remains intact in a fortnight’s time. There are good reasons for this conclusion ranging from the weather – there is clearly rain about in Chittagong at this time of the year – to the perception that Bangladesh have improved significantly in recent times.
There is concrete evidence for Bangladesh’s advance with a white ball. By winning the ODIs 2-1 England ended a run of six series victories at home for Bangladesh and it was all the more rewarding for Trevor Bayliss and his rotating coaches that players recently regarded as peripheral, such as Ben Duckett, Jake Ball and Sam Billings, made such an impact in a three-match series that grabbed the attention to a surprising degree.
The games were close, atmospheric and – to use the old euphemism – keenly contested. Jos Buttler resorted to language that we fancifully and, perhaps, naively assumed did not exist in his vocabulary. These were passionate contests in alien conditions for England’s newer recruits; it clearly mattered who won, making watching compulsive. It was not outlandish to regard Bangladesh as the favourites at the outset.
The evidence for Bangladesh’s advance as a Test side is scantier. They have not played a match for 14 months during which time England have been involved in 16 Tests. In their last series, when they played South Africa at home, there were two wet draws – though in the Chittagong game Bangladesh had acquired a first-innings lead of 78 before the heavens opened.
Priority number one for England is obviously to win the series against Bangladesh but there are others. The five-Test series against India is round the corner and there is an imperative to prepare for that. Hence there is justification in experimenting with fresh combinations before the more daunting task of taking on India commences in Rajkot on 9 November.
One can predict with some confidence that the Test pitches in India will be helpful to spin bowlers. They usually are and this is the most obvious way to overcome England. The bald statistics may be slightly misleading since two of England’s spinners have such limited Test experience. Nonetheless they are striking. Moeen Ali (after 30 Tests), Gareth Batty (seven) and Adil Rashid (three) average 42, 66 and 69 with the ball in Test cricket. Contrast that with the figures of Ravi Ashwin (39 Tests) and Ravindra Jadeja (20) who average 24 and 23 respectively. One does not require a cricketing brain of Brearleyesque proportions to establish how India might base their strategy for the series.
The only match preparations left for England before the Test in Rajkot are two days of a practice match in Chittagong and the two ensuing Tests. In Bangladesh the expectation, born out of previous Tests, is that the pitches will be much flatter than in India – though there was evidence of turn in the ODI wicket in Chittagong. In fact, if the home side are in ambitious mood they, too, might welcome a very spin-friendly surface against the tourists.
There will be much contemplation of England’s Test XI before the match starts on Thursday. There will certainly be three absentees from their last Test against Pakistan at The Oval. Alex Hales, unavailable for Bangladesh, will not be recalled for the Indian leg of the tour; James Vince has been dropped; and Jimmy Anderson is injured but hopeful of being fit for the Tests in India.
Moreover the balance of the England side is certain to change. They must surely select six men who can bowl (excluding Joe Root) to cope with the exacting conditions of Bangladesh and to compensate for the limitations of their spin department. They are bound to play two spinners; they will consider playing three. In India the conditions will surely warrant that. Therefore there is a case for playing with a six-man attack in Chittagong. It is not difficult to accommodate so many bowlingoptions because of the all-round capabilities of Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes.
If the three-spinner option is pursued in Chittagong, then Gareth Batty, the 39-year-old off-spinner, would probably embark on his first Test match for 11 years (his last one was against Bangladesh at Chester-le-Street in 2005). It would make sense to play him alongside Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, rather than his Surrey team-mate, Zafar Ansari, since Bangladesh will probably have four left-handers in their top six. And surely such a veteran cannot have been selected in anticipation of him carrying drinks around the sub-continentfor a couple of months? However, the balance changes when India are the opponents since they are likely to have only one left-hander in their top six. Hence a left arm-spinner – Ansari – would, theoretically, be of more value. So the final bowling place in England’s side in Chittagong is likely to be between Steven Finn, Jake Ball, Batty and Ansari.
The final batting place, if it is assumed that the 19-year-old Haseeb Hameed has been delegated to open with Alastair Cook, offers an equally intriguing selection conundrum. The conservative choice would be Gary Ballance, who has been there and done it – though not very successfully in recent times whether for England or Yorkshire at the end of the season.
The other options are rather more exciting: Duckett, who could also be considered as Cook’s partner rather than Hameed, and Buttler. Both excelled in the ODI series. Last summer Duckett prospered against a red ball for Northamptonshire; Buttler has barely glimpsed a red ball since he was dropped from England’s Test team 12 months ago but he batted with massive authority in the ODI series as well as captaining the side shrewdly.
This will be a tricky call for the England selectors, which might then include the dilemma of who would wear the gloves if Buttler is chosen alongside Jonny Bairstow. The opposition have given an inkling of what they think. The send-off Buttler received from the Bangladesh players in the second ODI in Dhaka suggests they see him as quite a dangerous opponent.