India vs. England: An epic tussle of tactics

India may have won a historic home series against England 4-1, but the fact is that the story could have been very different. Lounge analyses the tactics

What distinguished the India-England series that concluded last week was an arm-wrestle in tactics. Smart moves and blunders from both sides made it a see-saw battle for four Tests, before India scaled a new peak to dominate the final Test in Dharamsala.

If India blundered in leaving out left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav for the first Test in Hyderabad, England returned the favour by not picking off-spinner Shoaib Basheer for the third Test in Rajkot. If England’s Bazball bamboozled India in the first Test, India’s counter-moves tripped up the opposition in subsequent Tests. While England swept the rug from under India’s feet in Hyderabad, India found a way to escape from tricky situations in the next three Tests.

The series began on a turner in Hyderabad where the match initially appeared to follow the usual script. India gained a 190-run first innings lead and put England on the mat at 163/5 in their second innings. Then, Ollie Pope, who had failed in all his previous outings in India, pulled off a century stand with wicketkeeper-batsman Ben Foakes and added a further 145 with the tailenders. 

Suddenly India were chasing 230 on a minefield of a wicket in the fourth innings and collapsed to 202 all out. Preparing a turner backfired on the home team, as England’s debutant left-arm spinner Tom Hartley got a seven-wicket haul.

Two tactical blunders put India in that position. The first one was in the selection of the playing 11 where left-arm spinner Axar Patel’s batting got precedence over the wicket-taking prowess of Kuldeep Yadav. India opted for two left-arm spinners instead of the variety they had in a left-arm leg-spinner.

This allowed England to extend the second innings. India’s second mistake was on the field, when Pope disrupted the Indian spinners with reverse sweeps to score a mammoth 196. Skipper Rohit Sharma kept waiting for a mistake from Pope instead of rearranging the field.

Countering the sweeps

The next Test in Visakhapatnam was on a truer wicket. An injury to Jadeja brought in Kuldeep Yadav, who made an immediate impact with three wickets in England’s first innings. He should have had Pope too, but wicketkeeper K.S. Bharat fumbled an easy stumping.

India won by 106 runs, thanks to a first innings lead of 143. The margin of victory masks the evenness of the contest except for two outlier performances: a double century by India’s young opener, Yashasvi Jaiswal, and a burst of 6 for 45 by pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah. 

England’s top scorer in both innings was opener Zak Crawley who tucked into the diet of pace bowling before the spinners came on. What was different from Hyderabad was that the reverse sweeps and sweeps no longer fetched boundaries, and they were riskier as well, with fielders in catching positions for top edges. The Indian spinners also varied their length and pace to make the sweeps harder.

This stymied Bazball somewhat. After the series, some commentators wondered why England had not carried on with the sweeps that had paid such rich dividends in Hyderabad. India’s counter-measures were the reason.

England’s blunder in Rajkot

England’s out-of-the-box selection made the first two Tests intriguing. They left out their icon, James Anderson, in the first Test to accommodate four spinners, including three specialists and the off-spin of Joe Root. For the next Test, they dropped their 150-kmph speedster, Mark Wood, to bring in Anderson while maintaining a spin quartet. An injury to their only experienced spinner, Jack Leach, heralded another debutant, off-spinner Shoaib Basheer.

Despite having to rely on rookies, the call to fight fire with fire in India levelled the playing field. Following Hartley’s 7 for 62 in Hyderabad, Basheer picked up four wickets on debut in Vizag, including the prize scalps of Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill.

It was surprising, therefore, that England abandoned the spin quartet for the third Test in Rajkot, going back to playing two pace bowlers and leaving out Basheer. How they must have rued the absence of the tall off-spinner when they had India at 33/3 in the 9th over of the match. Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja rescued India from there with a 204-run partnership. 

That Basheer got Jadeja out cheaply in both innings of the next Test in Ranchi rubbed salt into the wound, because it underlined what they had missed in Rajkot. On the slow Rajkot wicket, where Anderson got a solitary tail-end wicket, Basheer would have made a big difference.

India won in Rajkot by a massive 434 runs, but it was England who had the upper hand at the start of the third day. Bazball 2.0 in the form of a blitzkrieg by opener Ben Duckett had taken England to 207/2 in reply to India’s 445. India’s skipper Rohit Sharma was caught flat-footed again as the left-handed English opener helped himself to boundaries galore with slog sweeps into a vacant cow corner.

The third morning loomed ominously with Ashwin having to fly home to Chennai for a family emergency. The first break for India came from England’s mainstay, Joe Root, gifting his wicket with an ill-conceived reverse scoop off Bumrah that Jaiswal held brilliantly in the slips. Here was a case of Bazball misfiring, because this was a time to grind India down, who were a bowler short, instead of indulging in a fancy shot.

The second factor that worked in India’s favour was the early introduction of Kuldeep Yadav in Ashwin’s absence. By now, Sharma had pushed the mid-wicket fielder back to the boundary to frustrate Duckett, who could only get singles in that region. He fell to a loose shot to Yadav for 153 and no other England batsman crossed 50. The visitors got bowled out for 319 and the match turned decisively. A second double-century by Jaiswal shut England out.

Underbowling of Kuldeep

Despite the big defeat in Rajkot, England again got into a winning position in the fourth Test in Ranchi. Root learned from his Rajkot blooper to score a classy unbeaten 122. He took England to 353 after a triple strike from debutant Akash Deep had the visitors reeling. They received succour from India’s strange move to give Kuldeep Yadav only 12 overs out of the 105 overs in England’s first innings. 

India were staring at conceding a big first innings lead when they were 177/7, as Basheer ran through four top order batsmen. This time it was Dhruv Jurel, the wicketkeeper-batsman who had replaced Bharat, who came to the rescue with Kuldeep Yadav. Their 76-run stand steadied the ship and Jurel carried on with the tailenders to take India past 300. 

Another English batting collapse, with Ashwin and Yadav sharing nine wickets, left India an easy target of 192. But a middle order collapse reduced them to 120/5 before Jurel and Gill pulled the chestnuts out of the fire. 

This gave India an unassailable 3-1 lead going into the final Test in Dharamsala where the home team dominated proceedings to send off England with an innings defeat. By now, England’s main scorers had been collared. Pope failed eight times in a row after his 196. Ducket was cramped with a leg-stump line. Only Crawley got another fifty, but when Ashwin took the new ball in the second innings, he was gone for a duck.

It was a credit to England, however, that they ran India so close in the first four Tests with rookie spinners. And it was equally creditable for India to win the series in the absence of Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul. 

Jaiswal, Gill, Jurel, and Sarfaraz Khan filled the breach in the Indian batting. Spin wiz Yadav proved his worth after repeatedly getting the short end of the stick. Most of all, Rohit Sharma learned how to stifle Bazball, at least in India.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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