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Why England’s barmy Bazballers really think they can win cricket’s toughest task

HYDERABAD — It is a view universally held that India is the hardest place to win a game of cricket, let alone a series.

This truth was reiterated by England captain Ben Stokes on the eve of the first Test in Hyderabad, yet typically there is no sense of foreboding. What others might regard as areas of concern Big Ben energy converts into reasons for optimism.

Other captains would have lost their hair through worry not the clippers, as he has. No warm-up matches ahead of Thursday’s first Test, senior figures returning from serious injuries, not least himself, a seam attack led by a 41-year-old supported by bowlers fairly described as brittle, a cohort of spinners that includes two uncapped players, one of whom has yet to be cleared for entry due to visa issues, and a third with only one Test cap.

India must be passing the cigars. Since they last lost a series at home, coincidentally to England more than a decade ago, they have been bettered in only three of 46 Tests. They boast one of the great quick bowlers, Jasprit Bumrah, and a spin quartet led by Ravi Ashwin, one of the finest in India’s history, and the uber tidy left-armer Ravindra Jadeja.

Despite winning the opening Test three years ago by a hefty margin, England suffered heavy defeats in the following three to underscore the difficulty.

Joe Root ripped five wickets in 38 deliveries in the second Test and still ended up on the losing side. A raging turner in Ahmedabad transformed Root’s mildly interesting off-spin into unreadable bamboozlery that brought five for eight in 6.2 overs, his first 5-fer in Test cricket.

In tandem with Jack Leach, who cracked open the Indian top order with four wickets, Root offers solid experience, but if England are to storm the Indian redoubt, then one of untried trio Tom Hartley, Rehan Ahmed and Shoaib Bashir are going to have to break through.

Though India are armed with a rapid pace quartet that ran through South Africa in Cape Town earlier this month in a match that lasted just five sessions, spin remains the defining characteristic of sub-continental cricket.

Wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav and left-arm finger spinner Axar Patel complete an Indian unit that adds up to a more powerful proposition than England’s and presents Bazball with its stiffest test.

This is, of course, just the way Stokes and Bazball co-creator Brendon McCullum like it.

England’s remarkable transformation under their leadership forces us to take England seriously no matter the apparent limitations. Neither wastes time worrying about qualities players might not possess. Instead, they select a group based on potential and fill the space with positivity. They are all about what England can do to beat India, not how they might fail.

This thinking manifests in the selection of Bashir, a 20-year-old novice who made his first-class debut only in June and was selected with more input from AI than the naked eye, and Hartley, a 24-year-old tyro from Lancashire, albeit one who stands 6ft 4ins and bowls left handed. Whilst this appears little more than high-end winging it, in the Stokes universe he finds substance in it.

“I wanted someone like him (Hartley) and Bash, when they first came into Abu Dhabi, just to watch them bowl. You do get an actual gauge on where their options are going to be from the different styles of bowlers they are. I will try and set fields that I think will give us the best chance of getting wickets, and all I’d say to him (Hartley) is think about taking wickets, and we’ll go from there.”

The delayed Indian visa that has forced Bashir back to the UK to resolve cost him a place in the opening Test squad. Hartley is almost certain to partner Jack Leach, one of three alongside Stokes and Ollie Pope coming back from injury. Like Stokes, Leach (stress fracture of the back) and Pope (shoulder) have come through a robust rehabilitation programme.

The bowling group, too, has endured a rigorous training regime with the England fitness staff. In the absence of warm-up matches the training was designed to simulate the matchday experience, boosted substantially by the warm-weather conditions experienced at the team’s Abu Dhabi boot camp.

It is this investment in targeted fitness that England believe will extend the bowling life of Jimmy Anderson, and enable the brittle bodies of Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson to share the load across five Tests. Though Stokes will delay naming his team until the last minute, Ben Foakes is assured of the gloves and Jonny Bairstow will bat at five.

These are merely technical considerations. The strength of this English offering is not to be found in material elements, but in those intangible qualities that keep the self-help book market in business. Stokes and McCullum are scripting a classic of the genre, coaxing performances from a team that far exceed the sum of their parts and instilling the belief that England might indeed prevail on the hardest beat of all.

“That’s the exciting thing for us as a group,” Stokes said. “We’ve got an amazing opportunity in front of us to do something, but just not getting caught up in the whole parade around it. I said that a few times before the Ashes. It’s just another series for us.

“Yes, there’s going to be more hype but if we stay true to ourselves as a team and individuals, all we can do is go out there and try and put our best foot forward, try to win every game we can. At the end of the series, we’ll see where we go and think about the other 16 Test matches we’ve got (in 2024).”

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