Sunday, 26 September, 2021
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Top orders to be tested as England face India without Stokes

Batsmen on both sides are set to face a stiff examination when an England team without Ben Stokes face India in the first Test in Nottingham starting on Wednesday.

Although England captain Joe Root boasts an impressive Test average of 48.68, the next best in his side belongs to opener Rory Burns, with 33.23.

Zak Crawley in particular has seen his Test returns decline dramatically since making a brilliant 267 against Pakistan, with a mere 123 runs in 12 subsequent innings.

Following England's 1-0 series loss to New Zealand in June -- their first home campaign reverse in seven years -- former captain Alastair Cook said the current top order "can't handle" the pressure of Test cricket.

There are worries too about India's batsmen ahead of a five-match campaign that comes 50 years after the tourists' first series win in England.

India captain and star batsman Virat Kohli has not scored a Test hundred in nearly two years, while opener Mayank Agarwal was ruled out of the first Test with suspected concussion after being hit on the head batting in the nets on Monday.

Cheteshwar Pujara, meanwhile, averages under 30 in England.

And Ajinkya Rahane, since kick-starting India's stunning revival during their eventual series win in Australia last year with 112 in Melbourne, has passed fifty just once in 13 subsequent Test innings.

Just as India prepared pitches favouring their spinners during a 3-1 win at home to England earlier this year, it would be no surprise were a green surface designed to maximise the skills of veteran England new-ball duo Stuart Broad -- playing on his Nottinghamshire home ground -- and James Anderson to be on show this week.

Anderson, England's all-time leading wicket-taker, has an especially brilliant Test record at Trent Bridge, with 64 wickets in 10 matches at under 20 apiece.

- 'Ready' -

India, however, also have an impressive seam attack featuring the likes of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Siraj.

"We expect England to give us such wickets, this is their home conditions," said vice-captain Rahane, with India having been in England for several weeks since a World Test Championship final loss to New Zealand.

"We are not too worried about what wickets they are giving us. We are ready."

The series may be decided by which team copes best with the Covid restriction surrounding players on both sides.

It was announced on Friday that key all-rounder Stokes was taking an "indefinite break from all cricket" to prioritise his mental health.

England and India, two of world cricket's biggest drawcards, have made little concession to the coronavirus by continuing to pursue packed schedules that can be especially onerous for multi-format stars such as Stokes.

Both sides face a gruelling programme, including the T20 World Cup and bilateral overseas tours after the end of this series, which could mean that some of India's multi-format stars are on the road for more than seven months, with the Indian Premier League having been moved to the UAE because of rising Covid-19 infection rates in India itself.

Root, talking about Stokes on Monday, said: "From my point of view, I just want my friend to be OK."

He added: "In terms of scheduling, that's way off my remit. We have tried as best we can over the last year to look after the players in terms of resting and rotating, giving guys the opportunity to get out of very difficult environments so that they can be as fresh for as long as possible."

Root requires a mere 22 runs to succeed Cook as his country's top run scorer in all formats, and is just one win away from surpassing Michael Vaughan's record of 26 as England's Test captain.

Root, while acknowledging the value of personal runs, said: "Test cricket is not about you as an individual.

"It is about winning for England and contributing to something bigger than yourself."