India lost to England yesterday for exactly the same reason they lost the World Cup final two months ago. The high quality of Indian bowling hides the most fundamental problem in this Indian team – a palpable lack of courage.
This is also why India have lost pretty much the vast majority of their knockout matches in all three formats in ICC events since 2013. Despite having a supply ten times more than any other country of talented cricketers. In a cricketing culture where seniority is prioritised over merit, authenticity is the most likely casualty. This Indian cricket team appear to play within boundaries prescribed to them by unimaginative personnel.
Conversely, this England team is redefining the meaning of courage and authenticity in Test cricket history. Is it a coincidence that India have lost both the Tests they have played against Bazball England? More notably, both times, England came back from (far) behind and won spectacularly. At Birmingham in 2022, India got a lead of 132 in the first innings, and yet, were beaten soundly by 7 wickets as England chased 378 down in the fourth innings (after being 109 for 3). It was after that match where Stokes famously said his team would have been happy to see more being added to their target just to see what score they could take down. And now, at Hyderabad in 2024, England were 190 behind in the first innings – which is close to a follow-on deficit. And yet, they won.
This win, though, is the more significant one, simply for the odds they overcame. Playing on a viciously turning pitch without any practice matches in India. Facing one of India’s all-time greatest bowling attacks – Ashwin and Jadeja are the finest spinner all-rounders after Richie Benaud – playing in the same era, in the same team. Bumrah is the best fast bowler to come out of India by a huge distance, with also the best record of a pacer in Indian conditions; arguably also the best fast bowler in the world today. Axar and Siraj are no pushovers either, not in these conditions. Man-for-man, except for Root, Bairstow and Stokes, India are the better side on paper, especially in Indian conditions.
England also overcame one more challenge that has not been spoken of enough. The pitch was at its quickest, and therefore most dangerous, on the first day when they batted (it slowed down right through the match, thus becoming easier to bat on). The ball was fizzing around when the spinners bowled on the first day, and yet, the England batsman looked ready for the challenge (all except one, Ollie Pope). Thanks to a Stokes special, they reached 246, which was definitely a par score in those conditions. (Contrary to what the Indian media would have you believe – one headline even went “Indian bowlers tame Bazball”). There was a palpable attempt to hit the Indian bowlers off their lengths, which worked to some extent. No one appeared to have noticed that Jadeja, the most economical bowler in Indian conditions – that is his hallmark – went for 4.88 per over – the most expensive spell of his career (minimum 6 overs).
There was an interesting moment that some of you might have noticed – on the first day, when the ball was fizzing around, an Indian player was caught by a stump mic saying in Hindi – we’ll have to bat last on this. More on this later.
But when India batted in their first innings, it was hard to tell if the pitch eased up, or if England bowled poorly. Rohit and Jaiswal, and later, just Jaiswal spectacularly gave Bazball a leaf from their own book – 119-1 at close, at 5.2 runs an over. It was the perfect riposte. Debutant Tom Hartley was hit for six off his first ball by Jaiswal, and was wilfully attacked thereafter, and yet, Stokes kept on bowling him with attacking fields, even prioritising bowling him over the main spinner Leach. Hartley’s first spell conceded 63 runs off just 9 overs. Stokes’ faith in his bowlers, this ability to not blink when they go for runs – this is every bit as significant to the Bazball credo as what they do with the bat.
The carnage continued on the third day, as Stokes perhaps got carried away by setting too many attacking fields. Every Indian batsman made runs (except Ashwin, who was run out). The bowling seemed lacklustre (and worryingly inadequate, given that this is a five-Test series) and moreover, Leach got injured. Rehan was inconsistent though Root did pull it back a bit. Given how deep the batting line-up was, it wasn’t surprising that India got 436 – a lead of 190.
Would England take a backward step now at least? Bat cautiously maybe for a bit? Ha. It was 89-1 at lunch on the third day, in 15 overs! The openers and then Pope, brimming with intent. With almost half the deficit gone, India were palpably tense after lunch. But they tightened up, and the bowlers were inspired. Bumrah bowled a memorable spell of reverse swing, and both Jadeja and Ashwin were at their very best. Soon, England were 163 for 5, their big three (Root-Bairstow-Stokes) gone, all playing defensive shots. And still 27 behind, with just the bottom half of their batting left. The match was over, bar the shouting.
And then, two players who must have been gutted to miss out on the recent Ashes series decided to demonstrate that Bazball is not about individuals. Keeper Ben Foakes (very unfortunately dropped as Bairstow kept for the balance of the side in the Ashes) showed stomach and skill while negotiating this tough phase, not allowing the bowlers to get a sniff. While Ollie Pope (who had been injured and was now playing his first Test after a shoulder injury), at the other end, cut loose. Most notably, the sweeps and reverse sweeps (and scoops) completely bamboozled the Indian spinners, as they went off their lengths. Sure, Pope was lucky too, but it was earned luck in the best possible way. A field pushed back due to aggression could not fully capitalise on the mistakes. A dropped catch and a couple of misfields also suggested palpable disorientation. The Indian team was spooked, and they didn’t know how to respond – their fault lines were revealed now, as their shoulders noticeably drooped. England were 316 for 6 at close, 126 up after being 190 in arrears, and still scoring at 4.10 per over! This says it all.
Morally, England had succeeded already – they had more than competed in the first Test (which they were expected to lose anyway), and found positives to last them the series. (Which is a lot more than Australia did last year in their opening Test in India – which they lost by an innings). They had nothing to lose now, but India were panicking, which is bizarre, because two teams had crossed 400 twice – that was the pitch on which their target was being set. England added a whopping 103 on the fourth day, but with many more singles than aggressive shots – at the same run rate – 4.12. Despite appearing to have accumulated more than attacked – another hallmark of Bazball.
With India set 231 to win, with the heavy roller on the pitch between innings, Dravid was seen in the middle, staring at the pitch, frowning fiercely. What an utterly crazy thing to do for a coach. Connect this dot with that comment on the first day caught by the stump mic (of that player worrying about batting last on this) – it tells you all you need to know about this team. This, despite knowing England’s main spinner was injured, would at least be restricted, and despite India having scored 436 against their attack in the first innings, despite the pitch having got even slower, despite the last 4 England wickets adding 145 on that same surface just before they batted.
Expectedly, Jaiswal succumbed to pressure, as did Gill (who is in bad form anyway). Rohit was the key, but once he went, a familiar panic set in. No one took the initiative, no one stepped out against the spinners, no one showed intent. KL Rahul, for all his undeniable talent, is a different player under this kind of pressure. It was World Cup final 2023 again, as a familiar heaviness of spirit collectively took over. Which is also so reminiscent of Dravid (India’s most significant Test batsman of this century, but we now realise perhaps how much he benefited from having Ganguly and later, Dhoni, as his captain). Bharat and Ashwin actually showed how inadequate the batting had been before, even though they could not finish the job. The absurdity of not cultivating a talent like SKY in the Test arena, and giving him a long rope that both Iyer and Rahul have benefited from (and Kohli too, in the last 4 years) could not be more apparent than now. Bazball England would have grabbed a player like SKY and made him a lynchpin in their team. Players who fight fire with fire and have the talent to back it up – that is the new way to play the sport – and England are demonstrating again and again how other ways are outdated.
England’s focus is not consistency – it is backing the highs of a player, and trying to create a mental space for him to make that his standard. Like Ollie Pope now has a new standard, after playing the finest innings, bar none, by a visiting batsman in India. Like Will Jacks, Rehan Ahmed and now, Tom Hartley – debutant spinners in the Bazball team – all getting 5 wickets in an innings of their debut Test (picked on meagre first-class performances). While India sticks to old ways, with a quintessential old-style thinker at the helm (Dravid was outdated as a cricket thinker in 2008 itself; he should be a dinosaur now).
Cricket anyway has a thinking problem (that England, of all teams, have challenged now). Look at West Indies’ win against Australia in the second Test that also ended yesterday – their first win in Australia after 27 years. Look at the world going potty. Don’t get me wrong – Shamar Joseph is a very exciting find (with a wonderful story), and this young West Indies team played with passion and intent, and deserved their win. It would be wonderful if West Indies could find a competitive Test team again – world cricket would gain immensely from it. But a little proportion maybe? A little less wistful (and wishful) romanticism? West Indies have had several one-off moments in the recent past – remember the 2-0 series win Bangladesh 3 years ago (not an easy place to win a series for most teams)? When Kyle Mayers announced himself so spectacularly? Not a single notable away win since, until this one (in a drawn series, with a Test won by 8 runs). Just because Brian Lara is crying on screen doesn’t mean we have to jettison all context. Let’s hope the West Indies Test team goes from strength to strength from here, but till that happens, maybe don’t mention that win in the same breath as England’s win against India? Maybe don’t equate a spark with a bonfire?
England are redefining cricket thinking forever, changing the sport in essential ways. More than any other Test team in history. Other teams are also playing differently because of them, or trying to. But not India (except Rohit). India will have to respond in kind now to being 0-1 down, which should be very interesting. They did so against the previous England team as well, and eventually won 3-1. But this England team is a completely different animal. Now that it is clear spinning pitches will likely backfire on India, what do they do? Batting pitches to increase the distance between the quality of Ashwin and Hartley as spinners? But will their batsmen match up to the positivity of England’s batting? Meanwhile, England, who love to come back from behind – how will they handle getting a lead? Can they deal with that?
An example of India’s deep-rooted malaise actually lies in the same Australia-West Indies Test that got over yesterday. When Steve Smith volunteered to open the batting for Australia after Warner retired so that the immensely talented Cameron Green can be accommodated in the team (rather than an anodyne opening batsman – Bancroft), he took on a far bigger challenge (that opening the batting vis-a-vis batting at # 4 is – the easiest batting position in Test history; he carried his bat yesterday, with 91 not out and all but took Australia home). This is so different from what India did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when there was a paucity of opening batsmen, and a dazzling selection of talented middle-order batsmen. So, a number of hapless middle- order batsmen had their careers jeopardised by being forced to open, including Yuvraj, Dravid, Sehwag and even Laxman. Ganguly, if he wasn’t captain, would have been forced to open too. India could have lost many of these batsmen forever, but were lucky that Sehwag made such a great fist of it. But Tendulkar, who was the best technically equipped batsman to try that position (despite being a spectacularly successful ODI opener) did not even comprehend taking on the challenge (there is a pointed conversation on this between me and Akash Chopra in the 2017 Impact Index book “Numbers Do Lie” for which I was much criticised then). If Tendulkar had opened, and made a success of it (which he probably would have), not only would he have had a higher impact in Tests than he did, but the Indian team would have done even better than it did. But no – in India, the best batsman earns the right to not take on the biggest challenges even when he is the most equipped to handle them. The team is secondary.
This is precisely the kind of outdated, short-sighted, personality-struck attitude that has solidified even more in the Kohli era (that even the likes of Harmanpreet Kaur embody with their behaviour). This is unique to India, and also why India is by a mile currently the most underachieving cricket nation in the world (as per pool of talent available), if ICC titles are a measure (as they should be, since pressure plays the biggest part in that; what is elite sport without pressure). This Test series against England has the potential to expose this better than anything ever has before.