Bazball Faces Its Biggest Challenge
Team England is in India for a five-Test series
Ever since Ben Stokes assumed the captaincy and Brendon McCullum took over the head coach in 2022, the strategy of adopting a refreshingly aggressive approach, christened ‘Bazball’, has worked admirably for England in the last couple of years.
Following a shock 1-0 defeat in the West Indies in early 2022 after which they completely changed their playing style, England have gone unbeaten in the last six series, winning four out of them including a 3-0 series sweep in Pakistan. Now Bazball faces its biggest challenge with the England team having landed in India for a five-Test series commencing on January 25.
Among all cricketing countries no team has a more awesome home record than India. A few facts will put this in proper perspective. India last went down in a Test series at home in late 2012.
Incidentally, it was England who inflicted that defeat. After losing the first Test they came back to take the series 2-1. However, India set the record straight winning 4-0 and 3-1 on England’s next two trips. India have gone on to win 16 straight home contests since that loss to England.
Whatever their limitations abroad India have been formidable opponents at home and winning a Test series in this country has been considered Mission Impossible for visiting teams. Australia for example last won a Test series in India in 2004 and in 2013 suffered the humiliation of losing all four Tests.
South Africa’s only series win in India came in 2000. In recent years they have been sitting ducks going down tamely. New Zealand last won a Test in 1988 and they have never won a Test series in India. West Indies’ last Test win in India came in 1994, while Sri Lanka have never won even one Test in India.
As Australia and England have proved it is easier to win an ODI World Cup than winning a Test series in India. There have been three of these tournaments since the last time a visiting team won a Test series in this country. Again it could be easier to win a World Test Championship; the two WTC champions have not even come close to winning in India in their championship cycles.
Given this background, can the Bazball approach help England to combat an Indian side that is strong in batting and even stronger in bowling, especially spin bowling, given the kind of tracks on which the game is generally played in this country. These days India has the pace bowling too to match the spinners in case the odd surface is helpful to this mode of attack.
England can look back to 2012 for some inspiration. On that trip Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann matched the Indian spinners and with skipper Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen excelling with the bat in their varied styles England were able to pull off a coup.
However this time it would appear that England lack both the batting and bowling firepower to take on India on level terms and it will be a major surprise if India don’t win yet another Test series to continue their overwhelming superiority at home.
England’s players have not been short on advice. Pietersen for one has underscored the need for a robust defence while pointing out that his relentless defensive drills at the nets was the mantra to success on the triumphant 2012-13 tour of India.
It was Pietersen’s masterly 186 in the second Test at Mumbai that turned the tide in his side’s favour and the knock is generally considered one of the greatest played by a visiting batsman in India.
His thoughts provide a clear view of the challenges and opportunities that await the Ben Stokes-led visitors. "I'd spend time in the nets just defending; it's actually not negative to defend. The ability to defend gives you the confidence to be able to attack. Play straight lines, don't plant your front foot, wait for the ball. If you can do that and you have the wherewithal to be able to commit to a solid defence and trust it, then it allows you to loosen up," he added.
He also gave tips on how to tackle the double spin threat of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja both of whom he countered admirably and who are expected to play key roles for India in the contest.
This is all well-meaning advice but one seriously doubts whether the England batsmen have it in them to put it into practice. They can only depend on very few players to come off in India. Joe Root who announced his arrival on the Test scene on that triumphant tour with a classically compiled 73 will shoulder a lot of responsibility as will their inspiring skipper Stokes.
The experience of Jonny Bairstow could come in handy but the last-minute withdrawal of Harry Brook, a young classy bat with an already proven record, makes matters more difficult for them as the rest of the batting could cave in before the guiles of Ashwin and Jadeja.
The bowling will be a bigger problem for England. For all his unmistakable greatness it is difficult to see James Anderson at 41 being a success. Much would depend on Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood but they might find the unfriendly surfaces not to their liking.
And with the exception of Jack Leach the spin bowling options look woefully thin. And if England are to nurture any hopes of doing well then spin will have to play a major role like Panesar and Swann did more than eleven years ago.
Nasser Hussain who led England to India in 2001 has struck a cautionary note by saying that one should not write off the visitors but to be candid one would rather agree with the view of another England captain Mike Atherton who reckons that India’s superior spin attack will win them the series: “I think India will win. Their spinners are better than England’s and that will be the defining factor in the end.’’
Yes it is difficult to be optimistic about England’s chances. Ultimately one feels that only the margin of India’s victory will be the subject of discussion.