The T20 world cup may be over, but cricket isn’t cooling down at all. The race to the 2023 world test championship final continues after a brief hiatus, and December’s bilateral series will provide some scintillating cricket as well as provide some valuable insights about a lot of teams.
Breaking Down The Teams And The Cricket
India (v Bangladesh)
India is still very much in the thick of the race to the final but will need to have a sweep here to realistically stay in the race with a big series against Australia still to be played. With the t20 world cup ending in a disappointing semi-final loss, and some turbulence on the team in terms of switching captaincy and selectors, though, India will need to recapture their fight and their prime cricket form. Being a very winnable series, this gives India a chance to tinker with their lineup and find an ideal playing XI.
Bowling shouldn’t be an issue for the team. Subcontinent pitches are extremely conducive to spin bowling, and Axar Patel, Ravi Ashwin, and Ravindra Jadeja should have a field day. If Jadeja isn’t healthy, spinning all-rounder Washington Sundar could be an interesting choice for the squad, and as it is, giving youngsters some experience is crucial. Pacers typically don’t do well on subcontinent pitches, but perhaps this is a good time to give Hardik Pandya another chance given his rediscovery of white-ball form. That injection of batting would be useful as well.
Batting is what indian fans are looking for as the area for improvement. In all formats, including test, it’s been a while since the Indians have had consistent batting throughout the lineup. Openers are a concern with Rohit Sharma’s recent slump, and finding his opposite involves a bit of a logjam with KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, and Shubman Gill all showing inconsistency in recent play. Perhaps this is the time to give a try to the world’s most in-form white ball batsman in Suryakumar Yadav early in the lineup. While the stylistic change won’t be ideal for him, class and form are permanent. The middle order will also require some tinkering, but the in-form Shreyas Iyer and all-rounders like Jadeja, Pandya and Patel will provide the onus, as well as Rishab Pant.
The biggest question is Virat Kohli, for sure. This world cup brought a return to near-vintage Kohli, and it will be interesting to see if he can translate that to the test level. With an in-form Kohli, the team becomes orders of magnitude tougher to stop, and his career high of 254 came against Bangladesh in 2019. The true test here will be if Kohli can play a disciplined opening 50 balls or so, and avoid some of the careless shot selections that have gotten him out cheaply in the past. Indian fans will have their eyes on this one for sure.
Bangladesh (v India)
For Bangladesh, there won’t be final hopes on the line, but against a top team like India, this is a great setting to resume their rebuild. As they did in the series against West Indies and the world cup, Bangladesh will have their captain and best player, Shakib al-Hasan, and he has improved back towards his prime form since that series. The team, while not advancing past their group in the world cup, saw some inspired performances from Hasan, Liton Das, and Najmul Shanto.
Their bowling hasn’t been much of a concern lately. With a core of Shakib al-Hasan, Mehidy Hasan, and Khaled Ahmed, they will be able to pick off wickets, although the Indian batting lineup will provide a challenge for sure. Perhaps trying white-ball stars Taskin Ahmed and Mustafizur Rahman would be an interesting avenue. On this ground, though, spinners Shakib and Hasan will certainly be the center of the attack axis.
The problem for the Bangladeshis will certainly be putting up competitive totals. It’s been an issue for them in test cricket for a while, too many critical mistakes leading to costly wickets. Sub-200 totals and even mere double-digit totals have been the norm for the team, unfortunately, and in this day and age, those are simply not competitive. IF the team can put up a good total, though, they can not only compete in matches, they can win them. Their only two 400+ totals in this cycle have been in a draw against Sri Lanka and a shocking upset win against New Zealand.
They’ll be able to get consistent batting from Shakib and Das for sure, but it’s the rest of their core that hasn’t been consistent. Between Soumya Sarkar, Najmul Shanto, and Nurul Hasan, they’ll need to get more production on a consistent basis, and they have been improving in white-ball, so it’s certainly possible. If the Bangladeshis can avail themselves well, even if it’s a 2-0 loss, it will be huge for the squad’s momentum.
Australia (vs West Indies, South Africa)
These will be challenging series for the Aussies, but their record so far has ensured that they have a fair bit of room for error to make the test championship final. For Australia, these series will be focused on fine-tuning themselves for the final, and the South Africa series in particular is a possible final preview.
On the batting end of things, the bulk of Australia’s runs come from their three and four spots in Smith and Labuschane, and those two will be a difficult out on any pitch against any team. Warner and Khawaja are a very threatening opening pair, but both are on and off at times, and need to find more consistency to put less pressure on the team. After Labuschane is where the real problem lies for the team, with Cam Green and Travis Head – while both are capable of a century on their day – not having been able to consistently string together runs, and having no true all-rounders, if the first four happen to collapse, it’s very hard to save the squad.
The bowling unit is strong for the aussies, with the fearsome pace trio of Starc, Hazelwood and Cummins. Perhaps Scott Boland who had that iconic six-wicket performance in last year’s Ashes against England should have himself a bowl in this series with an eye on the future. Nathan Lyon, as one of the best spinners in cricket history, continues to be in elite form. Australia’s lack of a good second spinner is worrisome, especially in the subcontinent matches with a series in India coming in 2023, but it hasn’t affected them much yet. Finding consistent opening and middle order batting remain the biggest questions, but the Aussies look good. It will be a question, though, if they can replicate their performances after shockingly sacking coach and Aussie legend Justin Langer for the far less experienced Andrew McDonald.
South Africa (vs Australia)
Like Sri Lanka a few years ago, South Africa was a team, especially on the test side, that had a lot of their talent grouped in a similar age range. With prime Vernon Philander, Jacques Kallis, AB De Villers, Dale Steyn, Quinton De Kock, they bordered on superteam territory during the 2008-2015 years. Replacing all that talent has taken time, but they’re slowly getting up to speed. The series with the Aussies will be an excellent checkpoint for them as to how they’re progressing.
Their bowling looks like a well-rounded unit, with Kagiso Rabada being one of the best pacers in the world, with Anrich Nortje not far behind. Keshav Maharaj is an effective spinner, although looking at white-ball cricket it’s hard to see why Tabaraiz Shamsi isn’t given much of a bowl in tests. Certainly that’s a duo that would do well in turning tracks, but against Australia, the onus will be on the pacers.
The batting attack is where the inconsistency and uncertainty lies for the South Africans. Without established, prominent threats, runs come from different places every match for the team, which isn’t a sustainable model for success. The opening pair of Elgar and Erwee has talent, but lacks consistency, and getting that good start will be very important against Australia’s threatening pace trio. Captain Temba Bavuma will be key to all of South Africa’s innings, as well as all-rounder Marco Jansen. The middle order with Verreyne, Petersen, Van Der Dussen is the x-factor; like the openers they’re unpredictable but also very talented.
This series will be very telling as to where the rebuild is for SA cricket, and there’s a final spot on the line if they can pull off the upset.
West Indies (vs Australia)
West Indies and red-ball haven’t been the best blend lately. As anyone can tell by watching their ODI and T20 matches, they love to go for shots. This leads, at times, to big explosions of runs, but at the test format, can also lead to costly wickets. Finding that balance for the Windies has been tough without some of the pillars they had. Of course Brian Lara goes without saying but players like Dwayne Bravo and Keiran Powell also had that skill of developing a proper innings. Replacing bowlers like Darren Sammy and Ravi Rampaul is an equally tough task.
The Windies are developing a tough lineup, though. Captain Kraigg Brathwaite has been a mainstay in the squad for some time, and is a reliable opener. West Indies, as a result, is typically able to get off the mark quite well. John Campbell is a promising, albeit inconsistent number two. In the middle order, Jermaine Blackwood and Kyle Mayers are explosive players who can get key runs. Holder holds down the fort as an excellent all-rounder The issues lie elsewhere. Bonner, Reifer, Da Silva, while they are shotmakers, haven’t shown an ability to construct lengthy innings, and the Windies haven’t been a team that can recover after being three or four down.
Their bowling attack is strong, and arguably the team’s strength. It’s a well-rounded unit that can keep the team in matches and set things up well for their batsmen. Led by Holder, Kemar Roach, and Jayden Seales, they’re a tough unit to stop when they get going.
Likely, the Aussie pace trio will be too good for the WI batting, but if some partnerships can form, that series can become very interesting. West Indies comes in with an outside shot of making the final, but it could become very interesting if they can pull off an upset.
Pakistan (vs Eng)
Pakistan will also be contending for a final spot, as they are just behind India in the table, and their remaining two series are home series against England and NZ. Pakistan is an odd case as a team, because their best cricketing form looks nearly unbeatable, and their off matches look poor enough that any team could beat them. They come in with some T20 momentum, off a berth in the final.
Their subcontinent test batting has been excellent, and they have one of the best top four groups in the world, with Abdullah Shafique, Imam Ul-Haq, Babar Azam and Azhar Ali leading the charge, as well as a number five in Mohammad Rizwan who is an excellent white-ball players. Babar’s cricketing class and discipline goes across formats, although his last few series have been a bit shaky, and Imam’s centuries against Australia in their test series will give him a lot of confidence.
It’s beyond that where there’s trouble. Rizwan hasn’t quite figured out test cricket, Fawad Alam and Sajid Khan are quite inconsistent, and Nauman Ali isn’t a huge batting threat. After losing four, Pakistan becomes an extremely vulnerable side.
Pakistan’s bowling is strong, and importantly, for them, it’s a young group. Shaheen and Naseem are fearsome pacers, although their effectiveness does decrease on turning tracks. The lack of a phenomenal spinner, compared to a team like India who has three of them, does hurt on these tracks. Yasir Shah is a good spinner (but won’t be playing against England), and perhaps a guy like Mohammad Nawaz can be integrated into the test side, but they can be inconsistent and often take some time to really settle in. This is what allowed Australia to get their footing even on the subcontinent track. If they can find consistency, though, both these series are winnable.
England (vs Pak)
England stands a rough seventh in the standing and have no real chance of making the final after some poor outings early in the cycle. However, the team has been on a tear since getting some guys back from injury, and looks to carry momentum into the next cycle.
Their batting looks to be in fantastic shape. Opener is probably their weakest spot. Zac Crawley has been very inconsistent, and with no Burns or Alex Lees in the squad, it’s hard to even predict who will be opposite him. Johnny Bairstow’s injury also hurts the team signfiicantly. However, with Joe Root, captain Ben Stokes, and Ollie Pope to lead the charge from there, they still look strong.
There is a slight drop-off from there, but England’s bowlers have normally been good for some runs, especially Jack Leach. The performers of the openers and the ability of the middle order to function without Bairstow will likely decide this series.
In terms of bowling, without Stuart Broad, they’ll be led by the ageless James Anderson, Liam Livingstone, Ollie Robinson, a strong pace trio in home conditions that may struggle in the subcontinent.
Jack Leach may have a bigger role than normal, being England’s best test spinner, and will have to lead the charge on a turning track. Whether he can pick off quick wickets will be key, as Pakistan put up some outrageous first-wicket partnerships in the Australia series, while also proving they can be sunk if wickets come early enough. It’s also possible that we’ll see 18-year old leg spinning prodigy Rehan Ahmed, especially in these conditions. England’s bowlers tend to do well on debut, it will be interesting to see of Ahmed can continue the trend.
It’s going to be a fascinating December for cricket, after which the WTC picture may get clearer… or it may get really, really interesting.