Sport360's Stuart Appleby ponders where the game could be won and lost at the Ageas Bowl
And the contest is finely poised heading into this week’s fourth match at Southampton, following the tourists’ Trent Bridge fightback to reduce the deficit to 2-1.
Momentum is with the Men in Blue but can England stem the tide?
Here, we shine the spotlight on three key player battles that could go a long way to deciding the outcome of the Ageas Bowl clash.
BEN STOKES v HARDIK PANDYA
The England all-rounder’s highly publicised return to the field following his trial didn’t exactly go to plan. He, along with his team-mates, struggled in the thrashing at Trent Bridge.
Stokes claimed just two wickets from the 35 overs he sent down across both innings and clearly lacked some zip and sharpness, though he did show his renowned heart, tenacity and skill to grind out his slowest Test fifty to date – scoring 62 off 187 balls (287 minutes at the crease).
He is still England’s biggest pressure-game performer and this is the type of occasion where he can come alive again, like he did at Edgbaston, to make the difference.
Pandya’s Test career is just 10 matches old but he produced his best showing yet at Nottingham, where he claimed six wickets in the match – including a brilliant 5-28 in the first innings, bowling with seam and swing – and then backed that up with an unbeaten half-century.
West Indies legend Michael Holding’s pre-Test comments that the 24-year-old had a long way to go until he could be considered a genuine all-rounder like Kapil Dev clearly riled him up and he answered with aplomb. The challenge for the Mumbai Indians star now is to show some consistency and repeat his last outing up with a performance of similar substance.
JONNY BAIRSTOW v RISHABH PANT
It is touch and go whether Bairstow will play as a specialist batsman or assume his usual wicket-keeping batsman role after sustaining a broken finger in the third Test. The Yorkshireman is desperate for the latter amid speculation England hierarchy are looking at the possibility of reinstating Jos Buttler to glove work on a full-time basis moving forward. That would be a great shame for the 28-year-old, who has worked incredibly hard to become a superb all-condition player and one of his country’s most consistent performers in all formats.
Meanwhile, Pant, at just 20, passed his Test debut with flying colours and although he didn’t offer too much with the bat (scoring 25 in two innings), grew in great confidence behind the stumps and looked like he would snaffle every (and there were plenty of them) chances that would come his way as he claimed seven in the match, with five of those coming in the first innings.
Keaton Jennings v Shikhar Dhawan
It feels like the last-chance saloon for South Africa-born batsman Keaton Jennings, who has scored just 94 runs at 18.80 in the series so far.
The left-hander has looked especially vulnerable outside off-stump again and his woes with the bat have had a knock-on effect as far as his slip catching goes, dropping Virat Kohli, most notably, on 93 in the second innings at Trent Bridge.
He needs a score in this Test to cement his spot and not give England’s selectors the chance to chop and change the opening combination again, even though partner Alastair Cook is also experiencing an extremely patchy run of form.
That said, conditions for the top-order have been difficult for both sets of batsmen during this series given the ball has nipped, seamed and moved on greener tops. Aside from Kohli and Bairstow, no other batter has scored 200 runs or more.
On the other hand, Dhawan knows a thing or two about being dropped. The 32-year-old was omitted from the Lord’s humiliation after his struggles for form were put under the microscope by Sam Curran, in particular, at Edgbaston. But the Delhi-born star returned with two decent knocks, 35 and 44, in the third match – and looked far more assured – leaving the ball well. He will be hoping to carry on in a similar vein this week and his runs could prove valuable moving forward.