The colours red and black are more commonly associated with roulette wheels than soil types, but as is the case with that most deceptive of casino games, the surface on which this T20I series has been played has mattered little in the final analysis. What has really made the difference is the spin at the start, because the banker always wins in the end. Win the toss, bowl first, scoop the spoils irrespective of the action.
So it has proven in three consecutive fixtures between England and India at Ahmedabad. Emphatic margins on each occasion – by eight wickets, seven wickets and eight wickets again – with the zippier, dewy conditions for the team batting under lights offering more pace onto the bat, and consequently to the rope, and little wriggle-room for the team that has been asked to post a target.
But why let that not-so-hidden truth detract from the fun that’s to be had along the way? After all, you’d struggle to claim that the action to date has been anything other than compelling – with England’s surging pace onslaughts in the first and third games giving way to Ishan Kishan’s precociously composed destruction in match two.
And, as Virat Kohli set out to prove in arguably the innings of the series on Tuesday, there’s always the chance of winning big when your numbers come up. Kohli’s outstanding innings of 77 not out from 46 balls gave his team a puncher’s chance – and it required Jos Buttler to step up with a career-best innings of 83 not out to snuff out the prospect of a win against the head.
Irrespective of the results, if there is one clear pointer to have emerged from the first three games, it is that England – with just over six months to go until the T20 World Cup – have a far better idea of their best XI than India. When Mark Wood is fit (and the management of his pace-stressed ankles is a full-time job for the support staff), the raucous hostility that he and Jofra Archer can produce in the powerplay is a perfect dovetail for their pedal-to-the-metal batting approach. Full throttle in both disciplines makes for a very compelling sight, and a very compelling affirmation of their No.1 T20I ranking.
But India aren’t so far away from a similarly devastating line-up – their faith in youth has already reaped huge dividends in the Test arena, and with a groundswell of IPL starlets itching to step up into the international spotlight, they are well placed to peak exactly when they’d want to, at the start of that home World Cup campaign in October.
And yet, as their selection in the third match revealed, there’s still some unresolved tension between the platform-building team of death-over accelerators that they used to be, and the more fearless, full-frontal outfit that Kohli said, at the start of the series, that he was looking for them to become. The decision to veer away from Kishan at the top of the order for match three, so soon after his extraordinarily carefree debut, looked like an error as soon as it was announced at the toss. Sure enough, it gave England licence to get back on the front foot in that powerplay, with Adil Rashid claiming the first over in a ploy that looks likely to stick, before Morgan was able to burgle some quiet mid-innings overs from an off-colour Ben Stokes while India were still trying to pick up the pieces of their top order.
The plus side of that decision, of course, is that at least India now know the error of their ways – and may now be all the better placed to commit more fully to their new forward-looking approach. The absence of the newly married Jasprit Bumrah needs also to be factored into their performances to date. His potential impact at the top and tail of any given innings is immeasurable, and affirms the sense that they are a team on the rise.
England, by contrast, are slightly boxed in by the obvious strength of their first XI. The decision to overlook Moeen Ali for match three, on a red-soil surface that ought to have assisted his offspin, was a surprise at the time, but also an indication that England really want to claim the series win before mixing up their methods and discovering how close to his best he truly is. But as they discovered with Tom Curran’s callow showing in match two, if England’s back-up players can’t hit the ground running when their rare opportunities come, the knock-on effect for their whole machine can be significant.
Similar issues (if they can be described as such) persist with England’s batting – the wall of noise that Nos.1 to 7 can produce is such that there’s a reluctance to experiment with a proven line-up, and find out whether Sam Billings’ skills as a finisher could add anything to the mix, or even the re-rising star Liam Livingstone (and his handy line in spin bowling). It may be that both will have to keep on watching and waiting a while yet.
Gambhir: Buttler one of the best T20 batters in the world
(Last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Not that he’s ever really out of the spotlight, but the form of Virat Kohli in the last two games has reinforced his pre-eminence in India’s line-up, after his back-to-back ducks in the fourth Test and first T20I. Against a high-class bowling attack, he’s provided an anchor with a difference for India – a calm second fiddle to Kishan in game two, before marching through the death overs to crush England’s remaining hopes, before serving up a granite-willed performance on Tuesday that, in its brilliant final flourishes against Wood in particular, showed the way for sides batting first in these conditions. With Kohli in this mood, the dashers in India’s line-up – Kishan and Rishabh Pant in particular – have even fuller licence to have a proper go.
For all of the awe that England’s pace battery has served up in recent days, there’s still no doubting which of England’s bowlers is Eoin Morgan’s absolute favourite weapon. Adil Rashid has the unwavering faith of his captain, and has justified that backing time and time again in recent months – most recently in an unfamiliar new role at the top of the powerplay in the first and third games. Tellingly, however, he was kept back from the new ball when India opened with Kishan in match two, and then kept out of the young gun’s firing line until it was arguably too late to make a decisive impact on India’s chase. A lot of faith is placed in match-ups in modern T20 cricket, but there’s still room for gut feel too. If England lose the toss and find themselves defending in the dew once again, might Morgan be tempted to give him an earlier spin?
A tough decision awaits on the fate of KL Rahul, who simply looked burned out by the end of his four-ball stay on Tuesday. The smart money would be on a new Mumbai Indians’ left-hand/right-hand combination at the top, with Rohit Sharma joining forces with his young gun, Kishan, whose style was somewhat cramped by his shunt to No.3 in the last game. Suryakumar Yadav, who didn’t get a chance to bat on debut in the second game, is the obvious choice to slot back in in the middle order.
India (probable): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Ishan Kishan, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 Rishabh Pant (wk), 5 Shreyas Iyer, 6 Suryakumar Yadav, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Washington Sundar, 9 Shardul Thakur, 10 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 11 Yuzvendra Chahal
Stick or twist for England? If everyone is fit, then an unchanged XI makes sense in the short term – a series win in India is not to be sniffed at, after all. But Moeen needs to be road-tested at some stage, surely, and then there’s the thorny issue of Dawid Malan at No. 3. It’s not out of the question that he could become the fastest player to reach 1000 runs before the series is done (see below). But his tempo in this series has been the slowest of his career – 66 runs at 110.00 in three innings, almost 40 points lower than his strike-rate at the end of the South Africa series (149.47). If he’s not the right fit for these conditions at the World Cup, then England could do with finding out sharpish who is. As for the other contenders, Reece Topley among them, their trial runs may have to wait a while yet.
England (probable): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jos Buttler (wk), 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Jonny Bairstow, 5 Eoin Morgan (capt), 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Sam Curran, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Mark Wood.
Pitch and conditions
It makes no difference if you’re black or red, as Michael Jackson didn’t quite sing. In theory, a red-soiled pitch ought to offer more bounce and turn for the spinners than its black-soil alternative. However, as in the first three games, the onset of dew as the lights kick in means that batting second is likely to be a major advantage either way.
Stats and trivia
- With 921 runs in 22 T20I innings to date, Dawid Malan needs another 79 runs to become the fastest batsman to reach 1000 in the format. Babar Azam is the current record-holder, having reached the mark in his 26th innings.
- Jason Roy is also on the verge of 1000 T20I runs. He needs another six, having reached 994 in 41 innings. His team-mate, Jonny Bairstow, passed the same landmark in his 43rd innings on Tuesday.
- Defeat for India in either of the next two games would mean only their second T20I series loss on home soil since the World T20 in 2016. Australia beat them 2-0 in 2019, their only loss in ten rubbers.
“I was going through a lean patch about two games ago. These things turn around very quickly. For us, he’s been a champion player. If you look at his stats in the last two-three years, they are probably better than anyone in world cricket in T20s. He’ll continue to be one of our main batters along with Rohit at the top of the order.”
Virat Kohli gives his backing to KL Rahul after his run of 1, 0 and 0 in the first three games.
“I was just trying to bang into the wicket on a good length as fast as I can, trying to make something happen.”
Mark Wood has an uncomplicated explanation for his uncomplicated method, after starring with three high-octane wickets on Tuesday
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket