When England set off for India I thought Jack Leach would be their most important bowler; two games later – and he played in only the first Test – he has been ruled out of the series and I’m not sure it will have much of an impact. That is down to the performances of England’s young spinners, Jasprit Bumrah’s reverse swing and the realisation that seam bowling may be more important than anyone would have expected.
With his experience, Leach was the one England spinner I thought could control his bowling in the heat of battle, when the pressure is on, and so seemed likely to be pivotal to their chances of taking 20 wickets. In home conditions, England use their fast-medium bowlers to give them some control but in India it is spin and they often struggle because they don’t have bowlers with enough accuracy. But in the first two Tests Ben Stokes has been exceptional in handling his young spinners, manoeuvring his bowling attack and setting his fields. Leach’s absence now has a very different feel to it.
To succeed in Test cricket you have to believe you deserve to be out there and that your game is good enough. There’s no room for doubt. Sometimes, young players are wonderfully naive and just go out and play with no expectation on themselves, but they can also overthink it and be a bit overawed.
Mentality is an important characteristic England look for when assessing players – it’s not just about their playing attributes. England’s management of their young players has been outstanding over the past couple of years and Tom Hartley, Shoaib Bashir and Rehan Ahmed have come into the team, played well and their belief will be strong.
The significance of reverse swing on the series has caught me by surprise. 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 it’s normally hard work for the seamers, but in that series after 40 overs you knew the ball would suddenly start reverse-swinging at pace and you’d be in trouble.
It is difficult to get your angles right against inswing: I remember working with Joe Root on how to deal with Bumrah and the challenge was knowing where his off stump is. Because of the wide angle of delivery you can be drawn into playing at balls you should leave, but with that in your mind you can also leave ones you shouldn’t. Someone like Zak Crawley, who bats on off stump, may see the inswinger as a ball he can score off, but his challenge is that his bat is coming across the ball to play it into the on-side and the margin for error is tiny.
Pace is key here: Ollie Robinson, say, may also be able to swing the ball, but he gives batters that little bit more time to adjust. Still, the Bumrah effect, the performance of Jimmy Anderson in the second Test and the success of the young spinners means England will be optimistic.
They will certainly be well rested, having been in Abu Dhabi since the end of the second Test. A couple of decades ago, they would have stayed in India and squeezed in a couple of first-class games, but it seems sensible 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 done the elephants and I’ve done the poverty, it’s time to go home.”
It is a different game now, but I wonder if England’s young spinners could have progressed their game more playing matches in India rather than relaxing in the UAE. It would have had the added bonus of avoiding the visa problem that must be distracting for Rehan. On the other hand, older players such as Stokes, Root and Jonny Bairstow must have welcomed the break, having enough experience to know what they’re doing and how they need to prepare.
I often enjoyed those first-class tour games and felt 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 buildup to Bashir, a 20-year-old spinner who has played one Test and seven first-class matches. For better or for worse, England have opted to de-stress at Abu Dhabi’s beaches, golf courses and luxury hotels.
At one-all and after a long break I’m not sure either side has the advantage. England’s attitude seems to be that they are underdogs and are going to go out and give it a go. So long as they are true to themselves whatever will be will be, which seems a good way to keep the pressure off. As they see it, India have everything to lose, given their magnificent home record and demanding fans.
They have already lost Virat Kohli, who is now out of the entire series. Though they proved in the second Test they can win without him it is a huge blow: Kohli is one of the greatest players of his generation, but more than that he drives his team on, never accepting second best. He is excellent at communicating with the crowd, winding them up, getting them going, and if an opposition player is going well he is not afraid to become involved in the verbals to interrupt his concentration.
He’s a titan of the modern game, box office to watch and any team would be weaker without him.