England can't afford to play the waiting game in Southampton as India will hit them hard

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England are leading the five-Test series 2-1. They crushed India inside two days at Lord’s and only need to draw one of the remaining two Tests against India to ensure they don’t lose the series. They are playing at home and have a pretty much fully fit side to choose from.

But after world No1 India fought back in Trent Bridge, the equation has changed. It’s the Indians who are looking like the team that is 2-1 ahead in the series. And there is a reason for it.

India began the England tour as the favourites. Their bowling attack is world-class with enough venom and variety to get 20 wickets cheaply against any side. However, injuries to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah denied them their two best bowlers in the first two Tests. Also, selection mistakes in the opening two games plus an abysmal batting effort from almost everyone apart from captain Virat Kohli saw them fall behind quickly.

But the thing about five-match series is there is enough time to find a way back. Even at 2-0 down. And at Trent Bridge, India did that. Their openers put on 50-plus partnerships in both innings and the Indians crossed 300 in both essays. Bowling has not been a problem for India for the better part of two seasons and they didn’t need a second invitation to bowl the team to a 203-run victory.

It was the manner of their win that has given India confidence going into the fourth Test in Southampton.

Jasprit Bumrah provided the pace spark that the Indian team needed. Suddenly, all four Indian pacers were comfortably outgunning their English counterparts in the speed department and that works on the psychology of a team. When the opposition knows they can only take blows without landing ones of equal ferocity, half the battle is won.

Aggression is Kohli’s mantra. He lives for a challenge on the field and expects his players to abide by that philosophy as well. It works brilliantly when the going is tough. Attritional cricket is not the style of this Indian team and England need to match that intensity in the fourth Test.

The hosts are in a quandary. If they prepare a lively pitch in the next two Tests, India’s fast bowlers will make life miserable for their batsmen. If they go for a flat surface, India’s batsmen will pile on the runs and the pressure of the scoreboard can weigh on the English line-up which has been misfiring for some time.

India’s eleven looks settled now and there is every chance the visitors will go in with an unchanged XI. England, on the other hand, will be considering whether to bring in left-arm seamer Sam Curran in place of Chris Woakes while Jonny Bairstow’s long-term future as a Test wicket-keeper has been suddenly and unnecessarily questioned. Also, England’s openers Keaton Jenning and now even Alastair Cook look some way off their best.

It’s imperative that England don’t wait for things to happen because India are on a roll. They were just waiting for their batsmen to find some form as their bowlers have been delivering admirably. It’s up to England to match the level of the Indian team.

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Jonny Bairstow has to remain England's long-term Test wicket-keeper

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Jonny Bairstow's build-up to the fourth Test has been disruptive.

Over the last five years, Jonny Bairstow has been the best wicket-keeper batsman in Test cricket, alongside Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, Kiwi gloveman BJ Watling and South Africa’s Quinton de Kock.

In 40 Tests during that period as gloveman, Bairstow has 149 dismissals – 140 catches and nine stumpings. He has 2,794 runs at an average of 42.33 with five centuries. Sarfraz’s numbers are excellent as well – 37 Tests, 2,178 runs at 41.8 with 121 dismissals. Watling (39 Tests, 2,046 runs at 40.9 and 154 dismissals) is right up there with De Kock (34 Tests, 1,884 runs at 36.9 and 150 dismissals).

Bairstow, it can be argued, is the more dominant and consistent wicket-keeper batsman among among all four, while Sarfraz is the more accomplished man behind the stumps as well as captain.

However, despite those highly impressive numbers, Bairstow is defending his position, in a way, in the Test team. No, Jonny is not getting dropped. But England are looking at Jos Buttler as a possible long-term option.

It started with Bairstow fracturing his finger while collecting a ball in the Trent Bridge Test against India. Buttler took over as the wicket-keeper and hit a fine century.

Suddenly, Bairstow finds his wicket-keeping spot under the spotlight despite being consistent behind and in front of the stumps.

“For the last couple of years, I don’t think you’ve (media) mentioned or questioned my wicket-keeping once,” Bairstow said when he was asked about the scrutiny over his position.

“Before that, I would cop a barrage every other Test. So for me that’s a huge feather in my cap. I don’t know what the conversations are that are going to be had, but it’s a difficult one because you put so much hard work into keeping wicket over a long sustained period of time.”

Which is a very valid point. When Bairstow started his career in 2011, it took him a long time to even get a consistent run in the limited-overs side. It seemed he had to work twice as hard to justify his selection. But credit to him for raising the bar considerably since 2015 in both Tests and ODIs. But despite emerging as the only guaranteed all-format, all-condition England player, alongside Ben Stokes, Bairstow is not being accorded the freedom do what he wants. Buttler has joined this list only in the last few months.

One would think that by this time, Bairstow would be the first name on the sheet with his position and comfort level given greater emphasis than that of some others. But after reading coach Trevor Bayliss’ comments that the team might have to convince Bairstow to possibly give the gloves to Buttler in the future and play purely as a batsman, it seems Jonny is back to the start of his career where he had fight for himself despite being better than most in the team.

The Yorkshireman’s journey to become Test keeper was a long one and he rightly wants to remain in the role. His batting has improved alongside it and Bairstow feels assured with gloves on throughout a Test. If England take one set of gloves away, his second set of gloves might begin to feel tight.

Bairstow is feeling on top of his game and he can pretty much walk into most teams as either a batsman or a keeper-batsman. But at this level, it’s all in the mind. England are unnecessarily looking to fix something that is working absolutely perfectly. And if they continue down this path, it can impact the confidence of Bairstow the batsman. And that would be a tragedy.

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Jonny Bairstow aiming to overcome broken finger and keep wicket in fourth Test

David Clough 28/08/2018
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Jonny Bairstow still hopes he can keep wicket for England in the fourth Test at Southampton despite his broken finger.

It was understood, when England announced their 14-man squad last week, that the best Bairstow could manage here was to play as a specialist batsman as the hosts bid to clinch the Specsavers series by going 3-1 up.

But Bairstow was planning to test the injury with his wicketkeeping gloves on in training at the Ageas Bowl on Tuesday – raising the possibility he, rather than Jos Buttler, may yet be behind the stumps against India.

Bairstow said: “The swelling has gone down. I’m going to try and keep wicket in training this afternoon as well.”

Buttler took over from Bairstow after the Yorkshireman injured his left middle finger, taking a delivery from James Anderson during England’s heavy defeat at Trent Bridge.

The 28-year-old added: “You obviously want to play, so If I’m not able to keep wicket then I would like to think I’ll be a specialist batsman.

“But at the same time I’m desperate to try and keep my place as the wicketkeeper.

“I’m very, very keen to keep my spot as the wicketkeeper – because I would like to think it’s gone pretty well over the last 38/39 Test matches that I’ve been keeping for England.”

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