The opening salvo towards Rohit Sharma in the pre-match presser at Hyderabad was along expected lines: BazBall. ‘’We look to play our cricket, and I am not interested in looking at how the opposition is going to play. It’s important that we look into our cricket, focus on what we need to do as a team, and take it from there,’’ the Indian captain answered. It might seem an indifferent response at face value, but Rohit actually wanted the hosts to control the controllables rather than fret over how England will go about their business.
The catchphrase here is ‘focus on what we need to do as a team’ which is, paradoxically, linked to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. India got the memo, with subtle adjustments made to the modus operandi revealing that their energies were lasered on their own strategization, leaving little room for awe that England’s hyper-aggressive brand of cricket can instill in the minds of their adversary. “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over,’’ Amazon founder Jeff Bezos reckoned.
The changes were not wholesale, for that would have pushed India away from the statutory process that works brilliantly for them on home turf. Instead, these were tweaks, aimed at fine-tuning their whole execution so as to best neutralize the fiery new avatar of England under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes. The plan was to keep the runs in check, optimize wicket-taking ability and above all, counter innovation with intellect.
Even though R Ashwin had left that gap wide open during the 2016-17 tour India stationed a sweeper cover this time around for Ben Duckett, whose repertoire now boasts of ‘’over ten sweep shots on both sides of the wicket.” ‘’If it’s spinning sideways and they’ve got men all around the bat I might use my reverse sweep as a forward defence,’’ he proclaims. When he nailed the shot off the penultimate ball of Ashwin’s first over, it resulted in just a single.
Duckett fell to the off-spinner in his next, having conjoined with Zac Crawley to take a boundary each in the eight overs of pace India served first up. The last time a visiting team scored more than England’s 42 without losing a wicket in the first 10 overs in their first innings in India was Australia (50/0) in Chennai in 2013.
India hedged their bets against Crawley as well, placing three men on the leg-side fence and as many around the bat. There was a deep backward point which fielded his reverse sweep off Ashwin, and Crawley vanished next ball driving uppishly to mid-off. Having blazed off the blocks, England managed 20 for 3 in overs 9-16, all delivered by spinners.
For so long the sweep has been adjudged as the last resort of the western batter against the turning ball; a lack of trust in the defence underpinning the allegiance with the broom. However, even those who can play with a straight bat and feel secure, like Joe Root, often resort to the sweep because it’s an excellent run-scoring option in the subcontinent. As the ball breaks, the angle can be used to your advantage. Runs off a good length vex a spinner the most for it yanks them out of their comfort zone. At the moment, England fancy imposing themselves anyway.
Duckett flaunted his sweeping range. Root paddle swept the second ball he faced, missed and escaped by a whisker. Pope went down on his knees right away versus Ashwin. To think that India’s mastermind wouldn’t have watched the footage of English batters religiously sweeping Abrar Ahmed in Pakistan is foolhardy. With an eye on enlarging the risk that is taken when attempting a sweep, Ashwin ambled in diagonally every now and then before releasing the ball from near the stumps. The straighter channels thus bowled stacked the lbw odds in his favour.
He also slowed down the pace a good ten yards once in a while to generate extra bounce on a surface where KS Bharat was gathering the new ball routinely above his chest. The loopier deliveries are more likely to produce a top edge when swept than the flatter ones.
England’s innings ended at 246, 91 runs later from the fall of their seventh wicket, that of Rehan Ahmed. His dismissal exemplified India’s street-smart approach as Jasprit Bumrah dug an off-cutter into the surface to beat the right-hander for pace and elicit an inside edge. In the Test arena his slower variations have chiefly been yorkers, famously bamboozling Shaun Marsh and Ollie Robinson. He pulled back the length of the off-paced weapon to castle Mohammad Rizwan in the 2023 ODI World Cup, and here was an encore in the whites, symbolizing India’s inventiveness against a reinvigorated English side that swears by it.
Although BazBall came only in spurts from the source it was intended to – 109 balls passed away without a boundary post Lunch – Yashasvi Jaiswal provided a more accurate representation of the philosophy. He came down on debutant Tom Hartley like a ton of bricks, ushering India into the ascendancy with an explosive 76*.
Mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton believes that ‘’The single biggest mental obstacle to success in cricket, and probably any sport, is fear of failure.’’ Just like the current England regime does, India have armed their young turk with the license to make merry, unleashing his talent in the pursuit of glory because ‘’success happens far more often when you spend time chasing success compared to when you spend time trying to avoid failure,’’ Upton adds.
England would contemplate the decision to introduce Hartley in the second over, given the ball started spinning only when the lustre wore off. Entrusting experienced campaigner Jack Leach to kick off proceedings along with Mark Wood and easing Hartley in as the purchase from the surface improved was an idea worth considering. The left-arm spinner buckled under the pressure Jaiswal exerted, hemorrhaging 63 in his nine overs.
“I think he played beautifully. These are home conditions and you’d expect nothing less of their lads than to play well out here. You have to pay credit to them: they played really well tonight and were very attacking, which is positive,” Duckett told reporters. “India don’t always go about it like that, so to go about it that way shows that they probably think that pitch is going to get quite a bit worse.”
Be it through KL Rahul’s counterpunching ton against South Africa, Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari’s defiant SCG partnership or Jadeja’s dry spell in the first innings at Southampton in late 2018, India have shown their adaptability. Thursday was the curtain-raiser to a long series against an audacious revolutionary threatening belligerence. Let alone panic, India held their own, all thanks to their willingness to stay ahead of the curve.