“I thought we left probably 70 runs on the board in the first innings,” India’s coach, Rahul Dravid, said after losing the first Test to England in Hyderabad on 28 January.
Sure, India could have scored 500 instead of 436. Yashasvi Jaiswal and KL Rahul threw away their wickets in the eighties instead of carrying on. But lower order contributions of 87, 41, and 44 by Ravindra Jadeja, Srikar Bharat, and Axar Patel still gave India a formidable lead of 190 on a turning wicket. If that was not enough to win a Test for the home team, the root cause lies elsewhere.
England could scarcely match India’s bowling resources for these conditions. But they were bold enough to leave out their iconic pace bowler James Anderson to go for three specialist spinners in addition to the off-spin of Joe Root. The visiting team fielded a spin quartet to outdo India’s spin trio.
Fans associate Bazball—the attacking brand of Test cricket England adopted when Brendon McCullum became the coach in 2022—with adventurous batting. But it’s more fundamentally a mindset, and that begins with selection. Compared to the boldness of Bazball in having an array of two left-arm spinners, an off-spinner, and a leg-spinner, India’s selection had the safety-first stamp of their coach, known as The Wall.
Left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav watched the match from the bench. India chose Axar Patel as the third spinner for his batting even though his wicket-taking has declined over the past year.
Ultimately, the runs that Patel contributed did not matter when England stretched their second innings to 420. What would have served India better is variety in the spin attack. Traditionally, a spin trio has meant three different kinds of spinners—off-spinner, left-arm spinner, and leg-spinner, as in Prasanna-Bedi-Chandrasekhar.
India had the resources but not the gumption to use it. If Patel had to be included for his batting, the coach and skipper could have made the bold bet to leave out Mohammed Siraj on a slow, dry wicket unsuitable for his swing bowling.
Before the match, Rohit Sharma even spoke of how tempted he was to unleash the “X factor” Kuldeep Yadav, whose bowling had become lethal in all conditions with its variations and control. But while India talked the talk, England walked the walk.
Kuldeep Yadav has not played a Test for India since his comeback in Bangladesh in December 2022. There, in the first Test, he took eights wickets to be the highest wicket-taker, outperforming Ravichandran Ashwin and Patel. And yet, he was replaced in the very next Test with medium-pacer Jaydev Unadkat. India almost lost that Test, saved by an 8th wicket partnership between Ashwin and Shreyas Iyer.
Last year, India eked out a 2-1 win over Australia at home. Patel got only three wickets in four Tests played on rank turners, and Kuldeep Yadav did not get a look-in at all. And now, despite a good performance in the World Cup, he continues to sit out, even though the captain says he’s “tempted” to play him.
Probably the biggest factor in India’s loss in Hyderabad was the faulty selection. “Lengthening the batting” was given primacy over wicket-taking just as in the ODI World Cup last year. Medium pacer Shardul Thakur was preferred over strike bowler Mohammed Shami. Only an injury to Hardik Pandya midway through the tournament brought in Shami. He ended up as the leading wicket-taker with 24 scalps.
What India can learn from Bazball is that England play to win rather than trying not to lose. Lengthening the batting at the expense of a wicket-taker smacks of a defensive mindset in the Indian camp.
Bazball nearly failed in Hyderabad until Ollie Pope executed it to perfection. Instead of letting the redoubtable pair of Ashwin and Jadeja dictate terms, he disrupted their line and length with reverse sweeps and scoops.
Again, in this scenario, India appeared to be waiting for him to make a mistake instead of challenging his gameplan with field settings. Cutting off boundaries from the reverse sweep and placing a fly slip to catch the scoop would have forced Pope to come up with other ways to score. That could have proved his undoing, but India were as passive in their tactics on the field as they were in their selection.
The advantage still lies with India to win the 5-Test series, given the resources they have for these conditions. But with England winning the first Test even without a significant contribution from Joe Root with the bat, Bazball is on track to upset the mosambi cart.
India on the other hand have new worries after messing up the selection and tactics in the first Test. Jadeja and Rahul are reported to be out with injuries and will miss the second Test starting on 2 February in Visakhapatnam.
So, Kuldeep Yadav, Jadeja’s likely replacement, may get a chance to prove that the coach and captain erred in leaving him out in Hyderabad. Or India may “lengthen the batting” further with off-spinner Washington Sundar. Left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar is another option.
Ideally, India should play four spinners, like England, treating Axar Patel as a batting all-rounder. Siraj can make way if the pitch appears similar to the one in Hyderabad.
The bigger problem is to replace Rahul, who is India’s best player of spin. Likely replacement Sarfaraz Khan or Rajat Patidar will add to the inexperience in the batting lineup. Why India don’t call up T20 star Suryakumar Yadav is a mystery. After all, he’s the Pope of scoops.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.
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