Inventive India learn their lessons quickly to out-Bazball England

The hosts knew the threat, respected their opposition, went out of the box and their comfort zone, and found new ways to win Test matches

Karthik Krishnaswamy

10-Mar-2024 • 19 hrs ago

What’s our experts’ favourite moment of the Test series?

Bazball. Since it entered cricket’s lexicon, no word has divided the sport like it. No two people can even seem to agree on what it means, but it’s actually not that hard to figure out if you’ve followed England since Brendon McCullum took over as their Test coach.

They seem to have recognised that English cricket is producing a lot of skilled attacking batters and not too many traditional Test-match players, and decided to make the most of the situation. They’ve backed attacking young batters like Ben Duckett, Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and Harry Brook, and attacking older heads like Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes, and backed them to bat in their natural style: to recognise what their best modes of attack are, practice them assiduously, and play those shots with freedom, knowing that low scores will not put their spots under threat. Playing this way, England have made the trade-off between a higher scoring rate and shorter innings, reasoning that when it works well, it gives their bowlers more time to take 20 wickets in a Test match.

This is Bazball – or at least a core element of it. It’s a simple concept, and it remains that, if we ignore the many-headed chameleon that it has become in the wider discourse. Like every other cricketing concept, it comes with pros and cons, and like every other cricketing philosophy that Test-match teams have embraced, it deserves taking seriously, whether it happens to be producing wins or losses at that given moment.

India have certainly taken Bazball seriously. If they’re one of the great Test teams, it’s not just because they’re blessed with some of the best batters, fast bowlers and spinners in the world. It’s also because they are adaptable. They respect their opposition, and work hard to find ways to beat them. Here’s how they came from behind to beat Bazball 4-1.

Traditional Indian pitches, not square turners
Last year, when India played three successive Tests against Australia on pitches where the ball turned sharply from day one, their coach Rahul Dravid pointed to a global trend for bowler-friendly pitches born of the need to secure as many World Test Championship points as possible.

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“Every team is getting results at home or are putting in really good performances at home, so there is a premium on results,” Dravid said. “You get four points for a draw and you get 12 for a win, so there is a premium on that, there’s no question about it.”

The WTC points structure hasn’t changed in this cycle, and Dravid remains India’s coach, but India moved away from square turners in this series against England. Why? Well, because Bazball.

When this series began, it was clear that India had by far the better bowling attack for Indian conditions, and that England, who arrived with four spinners of whom three had one previous Test cap between them, had a particularly weak attack even by the standards of recent visiting teams.

It was also clear that India, having moved on from Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane and missing Virat Kohli, who was absent for personal reasons, would start the series with the less experienced batting line-up of the two sides. Just for that, it made sense for them to prepare pitches that protected their batters a little while allowing the superior skills and experience of their bowlers to come through.

But the nature of Bazball must have also come into it. Batters taking frequent risks can end up defying the odds and make sizeable scores in all kinds of conditions. But it’s likelier for one or two chancy, attacking innings to make a difference to the result of a shorter contest on a raging turner than a longer contest on a flat pitch. This was the thinking behind India giving Suryakumar Yadav a Test debut against Australia last year.


What did this series tell us about England’s batting?

With England’s line-up packed with Suryakumars, India made the choice to lengthen the contest and ask the opposition to take risks for longer, against the superior attack.

It wasn’t entirely a coincidence, then, that England’s one win, and their closest defeat, came on the two most challenging batting pitches of the series, in Hyderabad and Ranchi.

Stop the singles
Pitch preparation isn’t an exact science, of course. A flat pitch – at least relative to those from the Australia series last year – can deteriorate and turn a fourth-innings chase extremely tricky, even against an inexperienced spin attack. And a chancy innings can last a long, long time: Pope survived 72 false shots while scoring his match-turning third-innings 196 in Hyderabad. England’s win in Hyderabad was, in many ways, a freak result.

But there were still learnings for India to imbibe. As good as their spinners are, they were still bowling to a Bazball line-up for the first time, still figuring out the best way to react to a batter reverse-sweeping as often, and as skilfully, as Pope did in Hyderabad.

R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel could probably have done two things differently against Pope. They could, for one, have been stubborn with their length rather than reactive – they gave away a few risk-free scoring shots while attempting to go fuller and hunt for lbws. And they could have been less reactive with their fields.

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