By Nick Hoult
As you approach the players’ entrance at Headingley, there is a mural by the Burley Banksy that reads “Stokes 135, Leach 1”. It also features a pair of spectacles in tribute to Jack Leach’s indelible part in the heroic comeback that captivated a nation. Two years later, England return to Headingley without either Ben Stokes or Leach, but still in desperate need of someone to perform a superhero rescue act.
Being without Stokes for the series was a grievous blow not only the loss his all-round talents and sheer will to win in any situation, but also that streak of menace needed when standing up to an Indian side led by their volatile captain, Virat Kohli.
In Stokes’s absence, it is down to Joe Root to again lead his team as they face the enormous challenge of coming back from 1-0 down in the Test series, with three to play against cock-a-hoop opponents, and lift the cloud that hangs over his beloved Yorkshire as they reel from the fallout of the Azeem Rafiq case.
The first four days are sold out, and half of the fifth, providing the perfect stage for another Root hundred. Unfortunately, home comforts have not always worked for him; he averages 35 at Headingley – less than at any other main Test ground in England – and has not made a Test century in Leeds since 2013.
It leaves England desperate for someone to support him, particularly experienced internationals Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow or Jos Buttler.
Normally when the captain is averaging 67.21 in a calendar year, has reeled off five hundreds, including two doubles, and amassed 1,277 runs, the team would be riding high too. But England have not won for seven Tests and the troubles can be neatly encapsulated in the recall of Malan to bat at three and the promotion of Haseeb Hameed to open in place of the dropped Dom Sibley.
Malan played 15 Tests and averaged 27.84 before finding his face did not fit when Ed Smith took over as chief selector. England have played 38 Tests since he was dropped in 2018 and six players have had the chance to make No 3 their own position. None has managed to hold it down for long, not even Root.
It is very rare for a batsman to make a successful comeback after being dropped for any significant time. Recently, only Mark Butcher managed it and possibly just Tom Graveney before him.
The good news for Malan is that Butcher’s comeback was crowned by an Ashes hundred at No 3 at Headingley 20 years ago last week. He averaged 41 in the second half of his career, playing another 44 Tests, recently admitting that his comeback only came about because “everybody else was injured.”
But Malan is back because everyone else has failed. From starting the summer with high hopes of Sibley, Ollie Pope, Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence, none has made it this far still in the team.
Butcher had nothing to lose, and Malan is in the same boat. Perhaps it will free up a player whose intensity played a large part in him losing his spot in the first place. One thing is certain: he will not be in the slips, where he dropped Kohli on 21 and 51 on his way to 149 in his last Test.
Root badly needs Malan’s help. So far in this series he has walked out to bat with England 42 for two, 46 for two, 23 for two and one for two.
Hameed returns to his natural spot opening the batting on the back of a golden duck and nine at Lord’s. His Test return, like Malan’s, is down to a lack of alternatives and few can have been promoted with such numbers. But these are desperate times for English batting.
England can take heart from Lord’s, where they were the better side until halfway through the last morning.
India’s middle order is in a dodgy state too. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane blocked their way to some semblance of form in a crucial second-innings stand, saving their places in the process. But Kohli is averaging 20 and India are relying heavily on openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul.
India have not played a Test at Headingley since 2003, when they batted England to oblivion with Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly all making hundreds in an innings win, helped in part by tea at Geoffrey Boycott’s house in the lead up to the game, where he gave them some tips on batting in Leeds.
There has been no such advice this time and the India management have spent a long time studying the pitch. The surface is slower than usual at Headingley, leading England towards picking Craig Overton over Saqib Mahmood because of his height and bounce. India may well go with the same XI who won at Lord’s.
Only Kapil Dev’s India team, in 1986, have won more than one Test on an England tour, so Kohli has a piece of history in his sights this week. Not that he ever needs any added motivation.