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The Toughest Test

by Neil Burns

Touring India, and winning a test series against the world’s wealthiest cricketing nation, is one of the most challenging aspects that exists in cricket today. 

India’s cricketing excellence, especially in home conditions, has proved too much for the majority of touring teams down the years. This includes Steve Waugh’s record-breaking Australians who had swept all opponents to one side until coming unstuck in India. Waugh named the challenge as ‘the final frontier’ for his world-class team in 2001.

Despite being ahead in the series, Waugh’s world-beaters were defeated at Eden Gardens in Kolkata when India won by 171 runs after being forced to follow-on. It was only the third time this has happened in the history of test cricket since it began in 1877, and ultimately inspired India to draw the there match series 1-1.

When a world-record breaking test team filled with legends of the game, cannot achieve the feat of winning a test series in India, the likelihood of any other opposition to India being successful  is put into a healthy perspective.

England begin their 5-test match tour of India in Hyderabad on Thursday 25th January, after 11 days of preparation in Abu Dhabi. No touring team has arrived so late for a test series – but Coach McCullum and Captain Stokes have become synonymous with ‘doing it differently’. They will be full of hope and expectation – largely based on the confidence they can draw upon from recent success under the impressive leadership duo. 

It is a very ‘un-English’ way of doing things in cricket – previously a more conservative approach and a requirement to ‘play to the media’ by doing things conventionally restricted England’s cricket teams. It was as if the objective of the leadership was to appeal to ‘the blazer brigade’ who were perceived to ‘run the game’ and make sure everyone kept their jobs should things go wrong. This England management team are risk-takers. They love to back their own hunches, and I admire their chutzpah.

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The aggressive attitude and style of play seemingly demanded by the leadership duo of Ben Stokes and Brendan (Baz) McCullum has been fun to watch and has seemingly empowered cricketers like Jonny Bairstow, Ben Duckett and Zak Crawley to play their natural game and to back themselves to succeed. Call it Baz-ball if you like, but in truth, I think it is more Ben-ball. This cricket team belongs to Ben Stokes. – he is up front, driving the team forward through his quality of performance and the strong, independent traits in his character. This has been allied to a rare level of empathy for his fellow players, possibly forged on some of his personal challenges such as facing a custodial sentence and having to deal with his own inspirational father’s illness (and subsequent death) when he fell ill watching his son play on tour for England in South Africa. Dealing with personal difficulties with the world’s media following the story must compound the  level of difficulty. Stokes, in my view, has emerged as an impressive leader of men. His players seem to love him, and most importantly, respect him. 

McCullum, in my view, operates as a consultant, steering the boat from the back. The combination seems to work well – they both believe in making the most of opportunities and have a healthy degree of ‘the rebel’ in their personality which lends itself to breaking new frontiers. 

The third leg of ‘the leadership stool’ is Rob Key who operates under the title of Managing Director of England Cricket. His role has been crucial to supporting the coach and captain to do things their own way once he made the decision to appoint them in the first place. 

Too many leaders who fail, contribute to their own downfall by wanting to micro-manage people and processes, but I get the sense, albeit from afar, that Key is different to most cricket administrators. He is more of a non-playing captain – happy to steer things from the back of the boat, and not looking for recognition and profile when things go well. More impressively, he has been prepared to ‘front up’ when things have gone badly in the white-ball formats and take responsibility for the poor performances to protect the players and coaching team. 

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But, the biggest test of the England transformation under Key’s leadership is about to happen. An abysmal World Cup defence earlier this winter will be forgiven if England play well in India and if they (eventually) build a team to go to Australia and succeed. India and Australia represent the toughest of tours. Success in contrasting conditions against the best-ranked test nations and your reputation as a team and as individual players will remain intact forever.

Could the Stokes/McCullum/Key England team go where Steve Waugh’s Australians couldn’t? Can they follow in the footsteps of sir Alastair Cook’s 2012 touring team and David Gower’s 1985 heroes. Gower had toured in 1981-2 under Keith Fletcher’s captaincy when the cricket was ridiculously slow and boring due to time-wasting and slow over-rates by the Indian team once they achieved a 1-0 lead in the series after the 1st test. Gower’s team in 1985 lost the first match of their test series (in Mumbai) but won the series. Cook’s team lost the first test in Ahmedabad and won the series 2-1 in 2012.

However good the leadership may be, cricket teams stand or fall, based on the individual skills of the 11 players selected to perform in the conditions. The leadership group on tour has to select the correct team – a requirement that sound simpler in theory than it can be in reality. For example, Monty Panesar was not selected in the 1st test match on the 2012 tour when he and Graeme Swann were two of the key players in England’s memorable series win.

Matthew Mott and Jos Buttler got this wrong in India for the World Cup – can Stokes and McCullum prove to be smarter in such circumstances?

As part of the selection process, they must get the balance of the bowling attack right. Will it be two seamers, two spinners plus Joe Root? Or, 3 seamers, one spinner (Leach) plus Root? I would go for Wood (pace) Robinson (skill and extra bounce) plus Anderson (accuracy) as my key bowlers with Leach as the front-line spinner, with root as a support bowler. Stokes’s inability to bowl will place strain on his batting contributions, but I doubt this will be a problem for him. He is, in my opinion, England’s second best batsman after Root. 

Selecting Jonny Bairstow to keep wicket and bat at 5 will offer them more options to select more variety in the bowling attack. But, I would go for Ben Foakes to keep and bat at 7, leaving Bairstow to focus on his batting and fielding contributions because I believe Foakes to be the better wicket-keeper. I think Foakes’s batting will also add value to the middle order too. 

The challenge will be keeping the bowlers fit (and in peak form) during the first 3 matches of the series. And assuming England can get off to a good start in the batting department in the 1st and 2nd tests, India may have their confidence dented. They aren’t used to being beaten at home and it may be that Mark Wood’s extreme pace could be their ‘bete-noire’. His transformation of the 2023 Ashes series at Headingley was breathtaking. Australia went from being dominant to being ‘second best’ . But, can he stay fit for three consecutive tests and bowl fast in hot, humid conditions? If not, I fear Anderson and Robinson will prove to be less threatening without the contrast of Wood’s pace to support them.

If England were to lose in Hyderabad in the 1st test of this series, will they come back? Can they win the series from a losing position like their predecessors? I’d love to say yes. But, I fear the worst for them. To succeed, the batsmen will need to ‘get in’ and ‘go big’ as individuals with the bat. Big first innings totals are required to establish a foothold in the game. Because England likes to score at a quick scoring rate, big totals won’t necessarily take time out of the match and thus bring the possibility of a draw into the equation. 

Therefore, unless the England bowlers can out-perform a top-class Indian bowling attack, I can’t see England winning a match. James Anderson Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson will need to stay fit and be at their very best for England to be competitive against the Indian batting mix of technicians and ‘dashers.’ And, I fear that England’s batsmen will be undone too easily, too often, by Ravi Ashwin and co, and the hole they might find themselves in, could prove too difficult to get out of. Can England win? I doubt it. Will they lose? I think so. Will it be by 5-0? Quite possibly. 

Here’s hoping I might be WRONG!

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