WWhen England left for India, I thought Jack Leach would be their most important bowler; two matches later – and he only played the first Test – he was ruled out of the series and I’m not sure that will have much impact. This is down to the performances of England’s young spinners, Jasprit Bumrah’s reverse swing and the realization that Seam Bowling could be bigger than anyone could have expected.
With his experience, Leach was the only England player who I thought could control his bowling in the heat of battle, when the pressure is on, and therefore seemed likely to be vital to their chances of taking 20 wickets. At home England use their fast and medium bowlers to give them some control, but in India it’s spin and they often struggle because they don’t have bowlers with enough accuracy. But in the first two Tests, Ben Stokes was exceptional in handling his young spinners, maneuvering his bowling attack and setting up his pitches. Leach’s absence now has a very different feel.
To succeed in Test cricket, you have to believe that you deserve to be there and that your game is good enough. There is no room for doubt. Sometimes young players are wonderfully naive and go out and play without any expectations of themselves, but they can also overthink it and be a little intimidated.
Mentality is an important characteristic that England look for when evaluating their players – it’s not just about their playing qualities. England’s management of their young players has been exceptional over the of the last two years and Tom Hartley, Shoaib Bashir and Rehan Ahmed have joined the team, played well and their confidence will be strong.
The importance of the reverse swing in the series surprised me. It reminds me of the summer of 1992, when Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram were so brilliant in England. As a middle-order batter, you often come in with the ball having lost its shine and that’s normally a tough job for the seamers, but in this series, after 40 overs, you knew the ball would suddenly start to make a reverse movement to the rhythm and you would be in trouble.
It’s difficult to get a good handle on the inswing: I remember working with Joe Root on how to deal with Bumrah and the challenge was knowing where his stump was. Due to the wide delivery angle, you may have to play balls that you should leave, but with that in mind, you can also leave ones that you shouldn’t. Someone like Zak Crawley, who bats on off stump, may see the inswinger as a ball he can score, but his challenge is that his bat goes through the ball to play it into the side and the margin for error is tiny. .
Pace is key here: Ollie Robinson, for example, may also be able to swing the ball, but he gives hitters a little more time to adjust. Yet the Bumrah effect, Jimmy Anderson’s performance in the second Test and the success of the young spinners mean England will be optimistic.
They will certainly be well rested, having been present in Abu Dhabi since the end of the second Test. Twenty years ago they would have stayed in India and played in a few first-class matches, but it seems reasonable to avoid the situation they found themselves in at the end of their tour of India in 1992-93, when They played 16 games and Phil Tufnell said: “I’ve been elephant and I’ve been poor, it’s time to go home.”
The game is different now, but I wonder if England’s young players could have progressed more by playing matches in India rather than relaxing in the UAE. This would have had the added benefit of avoiding the visa problem which was to distract Rehan. On the other hand, older players like Stokes, Root and Jonny Bairstow must have welcomed the break, having enough experience to know what they are doing and how they should prepare.
I often enjoyed these first-class matches and thought they were a good opportunity to learn about unfamiliar conditions, but there is no perfect answer: Bairstow, a 34-year-old batter who has played 97 Tests and 212 first-class matches, is going to want a completely different line-up to that of Bashir, a 20-year-old spinner who has played one Test and seven first-class matches. For better or worse, England has chosen to relax on the beaches, golf courses and luxury hotels of Abu Dhabi.
In the end and after a long pause, I am not sure that one of the two camps has the advantage. England’s attitude seems to be that they are underdogs and will take their chances. As long as they are true to themselves no matter what, that seems like a good way to keep the pressure on. According to them, India has everything to lose, given its magnificent home record and demanding fans.
They have already lost Virat Kohli, who is now ruled out of the entire series. Although they proved in the second Test that they can win without him, this is a blow: Kohli is one of the greatest players of his generation, but more than that, he leads his team, does not never accepting second best. He is excellent at communicating with the crowd, bringing them together, moving them forward, and if an opposing player is doing well, he is not afraid to get involved in verbals to interrupt their concentration.
He’s a titan of modern football, a box office hit to watch and any team would be weaker without him.