Forced to stay away from each other for a year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, cricket and its Indian aficionados will renew their relationship in the second home Test against England, starting Saturday at the MA Chidambaram Stadium here.
And what better occasion to link up again than during the Valentine week? Players, some of whom are worshipped as gods in this part of the world, will no longer be greeted by empty galleries while milestones are set to be followed by claps and standing ovations rather than the pin-drop silence that was prevalent in recent times.
The ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as well as bilingual chants will echo around the Chepauk Stadium over the next few days as India seeks to put up an improved show in front of its passionate fan army. The Virat Kohli-led side went down without a fight to Joe Root’s England in the series starter, suffering a massive 227-run defeat at the same venue.
With a quick turnaround of just three days in between the Tests, the home team had little time to regroup. But the India management acted quickly, drafting fully-fit left-arm spinner Axar Patel into the main squad on Thursday.
Following Axar’s availability, fellow left-arm orthodox bowler Shahbaz Nadeem, who was ineffective in the opening Test, was put back in the stand-by list. The rest of the playing eleven is likely to remain intact, with India solely aiming to put itself in the box seat to square the series right away.
Opener Shubman Gill proved during the first match that his lion-hearted performance in Australia wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Alongside senior pro Rohit Sharma, the 21-year-old would hope to create a common theme of racking up runs at the top.
Cheteshwar Pujara and skipper Kohli displayed high-calibre batting in the February 5-9 Test, but the middle-order failed to click as a unit in both innings. And so, Pujara, Kohli and vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, who looked completely out of place last time around, will be keen to lay the foundation.
Wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant will go about his ‘no risk, no reward’ game that came in handy in the first fixture. After an excellent outing, the onus will be on offie and local boy Ravichandran Ashwin to produce the goods once again on a spin-friendly surface.
The 34-year-old is expected to have the company of slow bowlers Axar and Washington Sundar as well as pacers Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma. England, which breached India’s fortress Chepauk on Tuesday, has shuffled its pack, ringing in four changes.
Stumper Jos Buttler has flown back home as part of a rotation policy while right-arm firebrand Jofra Archer will sit out the Test with an injury. James Anderson, the leader of the pace battery who has been ageing like fine wine, and off-spinner Dom Bess have been rested. However, there is no paucity of quality replacements in the England camp led by Root, who will look to show his magnificence at the MAC Stadium for a second time running.
The toss and track may play vital roles, but the result will be down to how both sets of players adapt to the challenges thrown at them.