New dad Virat Kohli returns to captain a buoyant India against England as they aim to build on their crushing win over Australia by sealing a place in the World Test Championship final.
Kohli, who welcomed a baby daughter last month, missed most of the Australia series on paternity leave as Ajinkya Rahane led an injury-ravaged side from 0-1 down to a sensational 2-1 away win.
Next up is the much-anticipated four-game series against Joe Root’s England, who are also on a winning streak after beating Sri Lanka 2-0 on their first Test tour since the pandemic.
However, India start as strong favourites on their spin-friendly home pitches, where England haven’t won a Test since 2012.
The hosts will also expect to clinch their place in the inaugural World Test Championship final in June at Lord’s, where New Zealand await.
India top the table followed by New Zealand, Australia and England. The Black Caps reached the final when Australia called off their tour of South Africa over coronavirus concerns.
Fast bowler Mohammed Siraj and wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant were among the new stars unearthed by India as they clinched the series by handing Australia their first defeat at Brisbane’s Gabba ground since 1988.
Paceman Mohammed Shami and left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja will miss the first two Tests due to injuries, but England are keenly aware of the strength and variety of India’s attack.
“The one thing about the Indian bowling attack is that it’s not just about spin,” England’s assistant coach Graham Thorpe said.
“Their seam attack is also strong. We can’t be sidetracked completely and focus just on the spin side of things.”
Jasprit Bumrah will lead the pace attack that also includes Siraj, Ishant Sharma and Shardul Thakur.
Spinners Ravichandran Ashwin, Kuldeep Yadav, Washington Sundar and Axar Patel will also be key on the Indian pitches.
England have come equipped with their spin options in Jack Leach, Dom Bess and Moeen Ali, who has recovered from the Covid infection that kept him out of the Sri Lanka series.
They also have three reserve spinners in Mason Crane, Matthew Parkinson and Amar Virdi.
Root, who hit match-winning scores of 228 and 186 in the first and second Sri Lanka Tests, will complete a century of Tests in the first game.
The visitors have been boosted by the return of Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Rory Burns as they rotate players to reduce their time in biosecure “bubbles”.
Wicketkeeper Jos Buttler will go home after the first Test, while Jonny Bairstow has been rested for the opening two matches.
“Root has time to play his strokes. He also plays spin well off the back foot,” Indian spinner Kuldeep Yadav told ESPNcricinfo.
“Buttler dominates the bowlers really well. That is his strength. Stokes too is similar and keeps the bowler under pressure.”
The first Test in Chennai is behind closed doors, but 50 percent capacity — 16,500 — will be allowed at the second Test in the same venue.
The day-night third Test and the fourth game will be the first held at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad — the world’s biggest cricket stadium, with a 110,000 capacity.
India has the world’s second highest number of pandemic cases, more than 10.7 million, but numbers of new infections and deaths have fallen dramatically in recent weeks.