Joe Root’s side face a defining year in Test cricket, with series against India and Australia

England face a huge test of their red-ball credentials when they take on both India and Australia in 2021, and Nasser Hussain and Michael Atherton believe it will be a defining year for Joe Root’s side.

England are due to play 17 Test matches this year – 18 if they reach the World Test Championship final – culminating in an Ashes tour.

Root’s men are in control of the first Test against Sri Lanka as they bid to replicate their 2018 clean sweep, although they have tougher challenges ahead, with trips to two of the world’s best Test sides on the horizon.

Their last victory away from home in Australia came over a decade ago, but before their latest Ashes assignment they face a four-match series in India, which begins in less than a month.

Sir Alastair Cook led England to a famous 2-1 win in the subcontinent back in 2012-13, although their last visit to India resulted in a humbling 4-0 whitewash.

“If you ask any England captain, where are the two places that are an absolute nightmare away from home to win, they will say Australia and India,” Hussain told Sky Sports.

“They’ve got four [matches] in India, five at home against India, and then the Ashes, so not only is it the amount of cricket, but it is tricky, difficult cricket, and it will test every one of those England cricketers, and more importantly, their captain.”

The intensive schedule will be gruelling enough for those who specialise in Test cricket, although England’s white-ball commitments – which includes the T20 World Cup – will add to the selection headaches.

Eoin Morgan’s side currently top the T20I rankings, and fresh from their famous World Cup triumph on home soil in 2019, they’re bidding to be in possession of both white-ball titles for the very first time.

“They’ve not just got 17 Test matches; they have got a whole load of white-ball cricket as well,” added Atherton.

“If England are focusing on two areas this coming year, it is Test matches and 20-over cricket. For your key players like Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler and others – they are multi-format players. They are going to be wanting to play in the world T20 before the Ashes.

“I know Joe Root and Chris Silverwood have put a lot of work in with nutritionists and the physios to say: ‘How can we get to November at the end of this incredibly long and arduous year, and make sure that our cricketers are ready to go for the Ashes at the end of this year?”

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Under Root’s stewardship, England have endured mixed fortunes away from home in Test cricket. Their series whitewash in Sri Lanka back in 2018 was touted as a breakthrough moment, whilst victory over South Africa 12 months ago reaffirmed this potential.

However, they have also suffered disappointing defeats in Australia, New Zealand and West Indies, and Hussain believes a lack of variety in their attack is a cause for concern.

“If I am an Indian or Australian coach, I would ask for the groundsman to produce good batting pitches. That is still England’s area of concern, their nemesis,” added Hussain.

“If it is not doing it for Anderson, Broad and Woakes and the spin department is lean, then an England captain is trying to work out how to get 20 wickets.

“If it spins, I think England can play because it makes decent spinners, better spinners. If it has got a bit of carry and bounce, it brings in Broad, Anderson and Archer.

“They [India] are a world-class outfit. They are not a side to be bullied. Some of the scenes we’ve seen from Australia, both on and off the field – don’t bully an Indian side, they go tight.”

Hussain praises India’s current crop….

“If it is flat and there is no sideways movement, that’s when England need to find that X-Factor bowler that Australia produce. That’s when your batsman need to go big and get 150s and double-hundreds.”

England do have a plethora of batting options at their disposal – Rory Burns, Ollie Pope and Ben Stokes are all expected to return for next month’s series in India, and Hussain believes England’s performance against spin will dictate their fortunes.

“I think what is going to be vital is how England batsmen are playing spin. You know at some stage it’s going to spin – you know you’re going to come up against [Ravichandran] Ashwin or [Ravindra] Jadeja and that’s why this series is a good sign.

“Jonny Bairstow is a good player of spin, Joe Root is an exceptional player of spin, [Dan] Lawrence looks a good player of spin. Zak Crawley in that double-hundred he got, so the playing of spin is absolutely vital.”

“They [India] are a world-class outfit. They are not a side to be bullied. Some of the scenes we’ve seen from Australia, both on and off the field – don’t bully an Indian side, they go tight.”

The threat posed by Australia is equally as potent. The pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins are capable of dismantling the world’s best, evidenced by their first Test exploits against India, but could David Warner hold the key?

“The big question mark is about Warner, who obviously had a poor Ashes in England. He has been injured down under and isn’t getting a whole heap of runs. I think Labuschagne and Smith are bankers for them,” claimed Atherton.

“If there’s a question mark about Warner and you can get into the opening partnership with England’s new-ball bowlers, and you suddenly get a crack at Labuschagne and Smith early, then that’s a different issue, so I think Warner is a vital player for them.”

Warner was tormented by Stuart Broad in last year’s Ashes, although more recently, the Australian opener has succumbed to Jofra Archer across all formats.

“There is a question mark over Warner, in that Archer has got the wood on him,” added Hussain.

“You ask Jofra Archer now: ‘Who is your favourite batsman to bowl at in the world?’ Warner does not fancy Jofra Archer at the moment, and Archer fancies Warner. That will be a battle to look forward to.”

Watch day three of the first Test live on Sky Sports Cricket from 4:10am on Saturday.

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