The next time someone talks about the future of Test cricket in sombre tones, as if its decline is as inevitable as coastal erosion, point them to the rearranged fifth Test between England and India that gets under way in leafy south Birmingham on Friday.
Granted, the sands are shifting elsewhere in the world. But India pitch up in whites this week because to not complete last year’s series – one the tourists led 2-1 when Covid entered their camp ahead of the Old Trafford finale – would have left a £40m black hole. In these parts, whatever the short-form enthusiasts say, Test cricket is still king.
India’s arrival is always a big deal but framing this series decider is not straightforward. They left these shores the superior side, their performances at Lord’s and the Oval nothing short of ferocious. Win or draw and it will be a first series victory in England since 2007, filed alongside their away triumphs in Australia in 2018-19 and 2020-21.
And yet an asterisk will inevitably sit alongside the final scoreline, its place in history a curio, because so much has changed since. Virat Kohli, whose midnight email to the BCCI on the eve of the original fixture sealed its fate, is no longer India captain, and Ravi Shastri, the head coach, will be giving his inimitable take from the commentary box.
KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma formed a dominant opening partnership that schooled England but are now missing through injury and Covid-19 respectively, with Jasprit Bumrah stepping up as captain in the absence of the latter. The fast bowler – India’s irresistible game-breaker at the Oval – was buzzing at the prospect on Thursday, having never previously led a side at any level.
England are similarly a different beast, ever since Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum came in as captain and head coach and sent a fresh wave of adventure coursing through the dressing room. Stokes was not even around last summer, taking a break for mental health reasons, and his presence was missed during a spiky encounter that nearly boiled over in the Long Room on the third day at Lord’s.
The all-rounder is keen to level the series, naturally, but his goal, he claimed, is far greater than one match and one result. There is a missionary zeal about the 31-year-old at present, evidenced by his decision to drop out of the Indian Premier League and plough his energies into the Test side, and this means continuing the breakneck approach seen during their 3-0 win over New Zealand against fresh opposition.
“If there’s a team that can, it’s us,” replied Stokes, boldly, when asked whether it is possible for his side to go harder still. “We know we need to win this Test to draw the series from a year ago. But at the moment, this is bigger than the results.
“What we managed to do over the last three weeks is reshape Test cricket with the way that we played. I think people are enjoying watching because they don’t know what they are going to get, but they know how we are going to play. I liken it to when the one-day team started in 2015; they knew they might watch something special.”
England are also looking to play their strongest XI at all times these days and so Jamie Overton makes way for the fit-again Jimmy Anderson despite being one of the architects of the win at Headingley with his 97 from No 8 on debut. Sam Billings also keeps his spot behind the stumps – this third cap his first not to involve haring down a motorway beforehand – with Ben Foakes not yet 100% fit.
Stokes also revealed he deliberately did not bowl himself in the first innings at Leeds, and bowled just four overs in the second, to push his frontline attack harder. Like the orders to bat aggressively, it was apparently done to teach them what is possible, whether that is 36-year-old Stuart Broad or Matt Potts, a breakout star who is 13 years his junior.
“It’s funny, bowlers have green zones, amber zones and red zones based on how much work you’ve done. [Broad] said he’s created a new zone called the burgundy zone,” Stokes explained. “But that Test match was bigger than the result.
“I honestly believe bowling out the best team in the world with three seamers and a spinner has done everybody the world of good. That whole week was really pushing them to their limits and making them understand what they are capable of doing. The challenge with Pottsy is to push him.”
It is another example of Stokes looking to eschew conventional thinking, even if it will invite criticism when things go wrong. The ongoing absence of Jofra Archer after being bowled into the ground serves as a cautionary tale here.
The same goes for the batting: there is an acceptance that a blowout or two along the way is inevitable, yet there is no going back either. Players are being given time too, with Stokes looking to ape the early days of Eoin Morgan’s white-ball revolution and insisting Zak Crawley, a player who might typically be said to be struggling, will keep his spot “regardless” of his returns this week.
Whether this can work in the longest format remains to be seen. But either way, and however peculiar the notion of a series spanning the best part of 12 months, the stands at Edgbaston are set to be full, and an intriguing, lucrative contest awaits.