The contrasting personae of the two coaches, Rahul ‘The Wall’ Dravid and Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum, constitute one of the intriguing aspects of the Test series between India and England, starting on 25 January in Hyderabad. Within that plot lie several captivating sub-plots.
Dravid earned the moniker of ‘the Wall’ during his playing days when his solid technique and temperament got India out of sticky situations.
‘Baz’ McCullum, who lit up the inaugural game of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in April 2008 with a blazing 158 in 73 balls, attracted the sobriquet of Bazball when he brought his fearless approach to the England team in 2022.
Dravid’s stint as coach of India since November 2021 has had ups and downs. India came up short in the World Test Championship, 2022 T20 World Cup, and 2023 ODI World Cup. Currently the team is ranked No.2 in Tests, below Australia but above England.
With 10 wins, 6 losses, and 3 draws, the Test team under Dravid has been solid without the kind of attention the previous coach, Ravi Shastri, got with goosebumps-raising triumphs in Australia and England in 2021. But India are heading into this series against England after a heady win in the South African stronghold of Cape Town for the first time ever at the start of 2024.
Bazball had a spectacular start in June 2022 with McCullum as coach and Ben Stokes taking over the Test captaincy from Joe Root. It reversed England’s fortunes with an intoxicating stretch of 11 wins, 2 losses, and no draws. Then came the Ashes setback at home last year, where England clawed back from a 2-Test deficit to a 2-2 draw against the World Test Champions, Australia.
After that, England had a miserable run in the ODI World Cup in India, finishing 7th in the table below Afghanistan. This brought into question whether the Bazball approach had to be adapted better to different conditions.
Bazball has invigorated Test cricket with an unprecedented scoring rate of 4.8 in the 20 months since McCullum and Stokes came together at the helm. Now the challenge will be to keep that up in India against a redoubtable spin trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Kuldeep Yadav.
A hitch in the planning for both teams is the unfamiliarity of the Test venues for this series: Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, Rajkot, Ranchi, and Dharamsala. That’s off the beaten track of Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Ahmedabad, which hogged the action during last year’s World Cup.
It’s almost a given that curators will try to make spin-friendly pitches, but the inherent nature of the soil will play a part. For instance, pace bowler Umesh Yadav took 10 out of the 20 wickets in India’s win over the West Indies in Hyderabad in 2018, the last time a Test was played there. So, India’s pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah and local boy Mohammed Siraj may well have bigger roles than fast bowlers usually do in India. Likewise, the England pace attack led by James Anderson will rub their hands in anticipation.
It’s fitting that the last Test of the series is in Dharamsala because England have a mountain to climb that’s Himalayan in scale. India have a formidable record of 36 wins against 3 losses in Tests at home since their last series loss in 2012, which was against Alastair Cook’s English team.
Experienced left-arm spinner Jack Leach and upcoming leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed will hope to match the exploits of the 2012 spin duo of Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann. Leach and Ahmed were the stars in England’s 3-0 clean sweep in Pakistan in late 2022.
England’s batting will again revolve around Root who was the mainstay on the Covid-affected tour of February-March 2021. The difference this time could be a switch in approach to take the battle into the enemy camp instead of being on the defensive. Even Root has become much more adventurous in his Test batting after the advent of Bazball.
For India, it will be business as usual at home, except for the offbeat venues forcing them to adapt. The withdrawal of Virat Kohli from the first two Tests for personal reasons leaves a large hole to fill in the batting lineup. But an abundance of talent in the country is waiting in the wings to grab such opportunities.
The straightforward option would be to replace Kohli with Sai Sudarshan, the left-hander who had a good show in the ODI series India won in South Africa in December. He has a sound technique and performed well for Gujarat Titans in the IPL.
Rajat Patidar would be another option, but a left-hander should be preferable to counter the left-arm spin of Leach and leg-spin of Ahmed. An out-of-the-box move would be to bring in young Dhruv Jurel as a dynamic wicketkeeper-batter to let KL Rahul play as a specialist batsman.
India have taken a positive approach in Tests under the captaincy of Rohit Sharma, setting attacking fields while bowling and putting opposition bowlers under pressure while batting. Nevertheless, it’s a more traditional approach compared to Bazball. It will be interesting to see how these two sides square up against each other.
The only time Bazball tested the Wall was in Birmingham in July 2022, right after McCullum took charge. It was a one-off Test to complete a 5-Test series left unfinished the previous year. India lost the Test after taking a sizable first innings lead, as England rattled off 378/3 at almost 5 an over in the last innings. Centuries by Root and Jonny Bairstow sealed the deal for Bazball. Now part two of Bazball versus the Wall begins.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.
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