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India vs England: Bazball can’t deny Test cricket’s eternal truths

Not every situation requires foot on floor because, well, that’s what’s worked in another context.

If anyone’s looking for a hashtag around this India v England series, consider the following: #humbling. Low on the coolness and thrill quotient, very high on accuracy.

PREMIUM England’s captain Ben Stokes, right, leaves the field after losing his wicket (AP)

The series began with predictions of a quick rollover by England due to what had been dinged as their weakest batting line up on tour. What happened instead was India’s first innings of 436 and 190-lead turning into the great heist of Hyderabad. Fashioned by a Pope (papal?) epic with the least experienced of England’s four-pronged spin attack taking a seven-fer, rendering a target of 231 too daunting for India.

By the time the Bazball drums began to sound, some beastly yorkers from Jasprit Bumrah (it’s now fully legit to refer to them as Jazballs) on the back of Yashasvi Jaiswal’s firework-fuelled double hundred restored India’s va va voom in Vizag. Even then, that did resemble a harried skate on thin ice past the finish line: Virat Kohli still missing, KL Rahul’s Hyderabad injury didn’t heal and Rohit Sharma’s two-month-long Test score string read 5,0,39,16,24, 39,14,13.

The ten-day gap between Vizag and Rajkot had England on a break in Abu Dhabi, revitalised with a general applauding of Bazballing and its saving Test cricket from itself. It must be clarified that the real Baz, McCullum will not utter the word, calling it a “silly term.” Bazball (Andrew Miller™) is actually most appropriate in locating credit and responsibility. The word does not shy away from identifying where the drive to encourage fundamental aggression and risk-taking in Test batting, talking up wicket-taking over bowling ‘boring’ maidens, going for victory, ignoring draws and using the term ‘nighthawks’ instead of nightwatchmen (no cringing) came from.

England captain Ben Stokes’s offered an alternative definition of his team’s approach, that it was about “just Test cricket… English Test cricket, sorry.” As of today, the numbers stand at 14 wins, 6 defeats, 1 draw for England from 21 Tests. Which includes a series win in Pakistan in December 2022, a solo Test victory over Ireland and drawn series against South Africa, Australia, India and New Zealand. While everyone in English cricket is well within their rights to be knee-deep in the hoopla, there’s a very good reason that the cricket world outside England is in eyeroll mode.

Because what Bazball or the Stokesian’ ‘English Test cricket’ has also generated is an outbreak of what former England captain Nasser Hussain had correctly called the Aussies out for: preaching. With a ceaseless hosanna-ing over how England have, how to put this nicely, invented the wheel. And bread. And the slicer.

It has led the enthusiastic Ben Duckett to say in response to Jaiswal’s Rajkot double hundred, that “it almost feels like we should take some credit that they’re playing differently than how other people play Test cricket.” Er, hospitality aside, Ducketji, don’t take yourself so seriously. Yes, your current strike rate of 86.76 from 18 Tests and 1400+runs is the best by any Test opener in history, with the second-best Test opener strike rate at 82.21. But do remember that came from Virender Sehwag’s 104 Tests and 8586 runs, scored more than a decade before Bazball. Another historical addendum: a deliberate four-an-over Test innings scoring rate also emerged in the Steve Waugh era.

The thing is that while Test cricket’s men and methods change, its time-worn patterns do not. Regardless of branding or new textbook editions, some truths remain constant. Runs on board are runs on board if you’ve nailed how much is enough in the situation at hand. Cutting off runs, dot ball overs build pressure, twenty wickets win matches. The best use of Test match time alongside entertaining the public is to use skills and smarts to build and enforce advantage.

At 1-1, Baz said that England would, “drop the shoulder and go hard” in Rajkot. Wrong sport to start with, sport, but India couldn’t get into any absurd metaphor contests because there was too much to sort out. Kohli wasn’t returning for the Tests, KL Rahul was still injured, Shreyas Iyer got handed an axe. India’s top six had 85 Tests between them; take away Rohit’s 57 Tests, then that’s 28 Tests between the rest of the batting plus two debutants on hand. ‘Transition’ looked flaky and shaky. The bowling line-up found itself depleted on day three. A family emergency had Ashwin head off to Chennai with Duckett and Root at the crease almost halfway past the India total.

No one’s created a catchphrase for it yet, but there’s a ferocity and tenacity that Indian teams radiate when protecting home turf. It is not easily quelled and showed itself in Rajkot, all fangs bared. Fortunately, this time, India have stayed away from the ‘selectively-watered’ pitches that formed a domestic Test template for the last decade. The return of Test surfaces that respect the Indian team’s own skills and temperament must be welcomed with garlands and open arms.

At his pre-match TV chat on day three, former India captain Anil Kumble was shifting from one foot to the other as if he wanted to climb into whites, grab the ball and head for the centre. The way to stop Duckett, he said, was to “mess with his eye-line.” Do what the batter doesn’t want done. Vary the line of attack, make him reach for the ball and place unconventional fields from ball one.

The consequences of messing with eyelines and minds was played out as the Test turned on its head after Joe Root’s dismissal due to what could only be called a ‘wannabe’ move. Not every situation requires foot on floor because, well, that’s what’s worked in another context. Like when asked about the ideal target to be chased in Rajkot, Duckett replied, “The more the better. This team is all about doing special things and creating history. They can have as many as they want and we’ll go and get them.” Which is just Kool-Aid-fuelled nonsense even though it did lead to history being created. In the form of England’s second-heaviest Test defeat in terms of runs (434) and Bazball’s biggest hammering.

This is not to say that England are not watchable or entertaining. They have contributed in equal measure to an enormously entertaining Test series. Yet, surely even if wrapped up in the golden glow of Bazball pride, they must know that giving India even the sliver of a chance at home can become the squandering of a lifetime’s opportunity.

Always remember #humbling. By the time this series is done, one team is going to hear a spooky cricketing truism cackling at it. The one which says that if you take the p*** out of cricket… well, let’s finish it using family friendly vocab, cricket will take the mickey out of you.


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