England have five specialist batsmen, six all-rounders, four fast bowlers and two front-line spinners in their 17-man squad for the Test series. They have right-handed and left-handed batters, accumulators and dashers; bowlers who have pace and those who can swing it conventionally and reverse; a legspinner, two offspinners and a left-arm spinner; and two wicketkeepers. Yet, ahead of the fourth Test, a must-win match, they have a distinct lack of options.
The injury to Haseeb Hameed has put their batting plans in disarray. The young Lancastrian opener will head home after sustaining a broken finger during the Mohali Test, his unbeaten innings of 59 on the final day as much a refusal to succumb to the pain of his injury as it was to a rampant Indian bowling line-up. Hameed will have a long England career but his absence gives Alastair Cook a real problem and one England’s current squad is ill-equipped to cope with.
What are the options? Cook has confirmed that a replacement will be called out but who that will be is not immediately obvious and whether that is firstly, an opener and secondly, someone they would thrust straight in to the fourth Test is not certain either.
They could pick someone from the Lions squad, currently in the UAE on a training camp, but whoever that is would not have played a competitive match since September. Nick Gubbins of Middlesex and Keaton Jennings of Durham are the two standout opening candidates, although are both untested at the international level, or Kent’s Sam Billings would be an option for the middle order should a suitable opener be happened upon.
If England want experience, they could pick Ian Bell from his holidays, but he has had no competitive cricket since the end of the English domestic season either and had a middling campaign with the bat for Warwickshire. Alex Hales, discarded after a poor home season against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, is also experienced at international level but has the advantage of being a straight swap form Hameed at the top of the order.
Of course, England do have another opener on tour in Ben Duckett yet the Northamptonshipe left-hander was dropped ahead of the Mohali Test after being dismissed at will by Ravichandaran Ashwin in the first two games. Cook and Trevor Bayliss decided, rightly, to take him out of the firing line so bringing him immediately back in to the side for the fourth Test risks doing further damage to his confidence. Besides, it is unlikely to bring England many runs.
Elsewhere in the squad, Joe Root opened the batting in England’s second innings in Mohali, making a patient and technically excellent 78, and he could do so again but this carries plenty of risk. With Cook and Root opening together, England would have their two most important players facing the new ball, a situation that is asking for trouble. Root needs some protection so he should, at all costs, bat at three.
Moeen Ali opened last winter in the UAE but his performances – averaging 14 from three Tests – did little to suggest it is a decision that should be repeated here and he has been shunted up and down the order so much it is time he was left alone. Gary Ballance could open but is horribly short of form, dropped after a torrid time in Bangladesh and averaging 16 from six Tests this year.
In short, aside from Root, England’s options to replace Hameed are all either totally devoid of form, out of match practice, vastly inexperienced or a combination of all three.
That problem extends to the bowling too. England’s seamers and spinners have been outbowled by their Indian counterparts and the stubborn resistance of the home side’s lower order in their first innings, scoring 213 runs for the last four wickets, was a damning indictment of the toothlessness of England’s attack.
Here again, England have few options. In the spin department, the return of Gareth Batty in place of Zafar Ansari for the third Test was unsuccessful. The Surrey captain bowled unthreateningly but Ansari’s inconsistency with the ball – the reason for his exclusion in Mohali – suggests England will not want to return to him either. How Cook and Bayliss may be ruing the selector’s decision to not pick Somerset’s Jack Leach, who had a fine domestic season, in the squad instead of Ansari.
England simply do not have the spin bowlers available to consistently trouble India’s batsmen so unless they change their spinners – not going to happen – they have to change the balance of their side. Perhaps the best option England have is to pick an extra batsman instead of a third spinner – although the problem of which batsman to pick remains – and utilise five bowlers only or they could pick two spinners and an extra seamer.
If they decide the latter, which combination they choose is anyone’s guess. None of England’s seamers have offered much fire and brimstone so far in the series, although they have at least provided control, and there are injuries to consider too. Stuart Broad may or may not be fit for the Mumbai Test and Chris Woakes has an issue so he too may miss out.
Cook could turn to Steven Finn, despite some patchy form over the past year, or Jake Ball, who has made just one Test appearance, but neither is likely to do a better job than James Anderson, Broad or Woakes have done so far and the Mumbai pitch is unlikely to offer much for their tall, hit-the-pitch style of bowling. What England wouldn’t give for the reverse-swing and skiddy pace of a fit Mark Wood.
Clearly, before the Mumbai Test begins on December 8 England have some choices to make. The selectors’ plan was for this squad to cover all bases but it has turned out to be one that is currently giving Cook and Bayliss far more questions than answers. They need to solve them quickly.