England’s whole year might well ride on the outcome of Thursday’s Fourth Test against India. That might sound a bit dramatic, what with them having another 12 Test matches to come in the next 10 months, but when it comes to Ashes cycles, momentum and mentality can play a massive part.
After winning their series in Sri Lanka on the back of Joe Root’s brilliance with the bat and adding a First Test victory against India in Chennai on the back of more magic from the captain, the utter gubbings they have been handed in the last two matches have been a reminder of how harsh Test cricket can be. Another mauling in Ahmedabad starting on Thursday, and there could yet be some serious repercussions.
Of course, they have a whole summer to recalibrate ahead of their tour down under at the end of the year, but when it comes to England v Australia clashes, psychology usually has a big say. Going to Oz with a heavy 3-1 defeat their most recent touring memory would hardly be the greatest of preparation, even if the home season series with New Zealand and India go particularly well.
Think back to 2013, when England absolutely hammered Australia and still managed to somehow come out of the series with doubts in their minds as they headed for the reverse series three months later. Their 3-0 win at home ought to have been all the confidence-booster they needed as they looked to retain the urn for the fourth time in a row, but it was Australia who left The Oval after the Fifth Test talking up their hopes the most.
Shane Watson and Steve Smith both hit huge hundreds to put Australia in the driving seat in south London before the rain washed out a whole day, and suddenly coach Darren Lehmann was talking like a leader whose troops had just won 3-0 rather than lost by the same score, and after clinching a 2-1 win in the ODI series which followed, he was bullish about his side’s hopes back in Australia. Somehow they had seized the momentum.
“The way we played, especially in the last three Tests, we were very, very good except for two hours in Durham [in the Fourth Test],” Lehmann said afterwards. “We just need to be consistent and grab the big moments and we know that. It was closer than people think but at the end the result was 3-0 so we have got to improve. We know the conditions at home will probably suit us better than England.” His team promptly won the Ashes back with a 5-0 whitewash that England have never really got over.
That point that Lehmann was at between series is what England will be contemplating right now. This will be their last Test match away from home before heading down under. They can lean on favourable conditions at home this summer, but a win in Ahmedabad and a 2-2 series tie in really difficult circumstances against Virat Kohli’s in-form India – who just beat Australia in Australia, let’s not forget – would be a massive fillip for Joe Root, Chris Silverwood and the team.
It will take a number of players finding form, including the top-order batsmen who have failed with regularity this winter and the weak middle-order, but if England can show their fighting spirit and chisel out a famous win then that could really give them the momentum that great Test cricket sides thrive on.
Win it, and this has been a really encouraging winter to kick-start one of the most monumental years of England’s Test cricket history. Lose it, and the next 10 months suddenly look that much more daunting.
We will learn a lot about this England side over the next five days.