India v England: Ben Stokes’ side shown what they are up against


Mark Wood
England ended the second day of the first Test 175 runs behind, with three India first-innings wickets still tot take

Nobody said it was easy. Nobody said it would be this hard.

Two days into the Test series in India, England have been shown what kind of juggernaut they are up against. The home side are 421-7 in reply to England’s 246, with a proud record of never losing a home Test when taking a first-innings lead of 100 or more.

More broadly, the question posed in Hyderabad is whether this is a taste of things to come on the long journey to the foothills of the Himalayas for the fifth Test in Dharamsala in early March.

Let’s get one thing straight. It is devilishly difficult for anyone to win a Test series in this country. The last time India were beaten at home, Sachin Tendulkar was a year away from retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson was still Manchester United manager and Rehan Ahmed was eight years old.

England skipper Ben Stokes said it is an achievement just to win one Test here. It is a tour that examines everything about a team. Mind, body and soul.

It is a good job that England had such a lovely time on their training camp in Abu Dhabi, because they are going to need every ounce of camaraderie over the next seven weeks.

England’s preparation will certainly become a talking point, even if these things are only ever evaluated in hindsight. Certainly there were no complaints when England had one loose excuse for a warm-up match before each tour of Pakistan and New Zealand last winter, and won four out of five Tests.

Still, there was not even that this time. Certainly Ollie Pope looked like a man who has not batted since June, while Jack Leach, who has not played in longer, was hampered by a knock to his knee sustained in the field.

England had the bonus of winning a toss so crucial that even the team chef, complete with apron, was on the outfield for it.

Their first-innings total was no disgrace and, if some of their batters did struggle on a dry pitch in Hyderabad, that is no different to India being shot out on a green one at Trent Bridge.

At this point, it is worth remembering it was England who dished out that last home defeat for India, in 2012, more recent than India’s last win in England, back in 2007. (England also have won in Australia more recently than the other way around, which I mention for no other reason that every opportunity to mention it should be taken).

At such an early stage in the series, the most obvious difference between the teams is the quality of the spinners. Even India’s fourth choice, Kuldeep Yadav, would be England’s number one.

If that sounds harsh on Leach, it is definitely the case when Leach is on one leg.

And, before we start apportioning blame to The Hundred, the schedule of the County Championship, domestic groundstaff, Andrew Strauss or whichever weather system happens to be spoiling the British summer, consider the fact that it was ever thus.

Of Test spinners to reach 200 wickets, there are twice as many Indians (six) to England’s three. Flip that to pace bowlers, and England have 13 to India’s five. Products of their environment.

In the case of Ahmed and Tom Hartley, one Test cap between them, asking them to match the output of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel is like putting a learner driver in a Formula 1 car for a race with Max Verstappen.

For Hartley, the mauling he took on the first evening, going for 63 runs from nine overs and being belted for six by Yashasvi Jaiswal from his first delivery in Test cricket, made him the latest candidate to be struck by the ‘Curse of the Lancashire Spinner’.

In the past 25 years, the Red Rose have provided five front-line spinners chosen to play Test cricket for England, more than any other county. All of the previous four had a miserable experience.

Chris Schofield was one of the first England players to be given a central contract, but bowled only 18 overs in two Tests. The destruction of Simon Kerrigan in his only Test in 2013 has gone down in Ashes folklore, Matt Parkinson was summoned as a concussion substitute in 2022 and never seen again, while Liam Livingstone got injured before he could bowl a ball. Between them, they have five caps.

Remarkably, the pair of wickets Hartley took on the second day are more than his fellow Lancastrians put together. Before the curse, the last Lancashire spinner to take a Test wicket for England was part-time leg-spinner Michael Atherton. Perhaps that is how it began. At least Hartley is still in with a chance of breaking it.

Like Hartley, Joe Root picked up two wickets with his off-breaks, sending down more overs, 24, than any other bowler on day two. In fairness, Stokes did say before the match that Root was an option to open the bowling and, given the problems he caused on Friday, one was left to wonder why he did not bowl on the opening day.

There has always been a feeling that Root has been under-bowled in his 136-Test career, not helped by the fact he was captain for 64 of them. In Test history, only Jacques Kallis has made more runs than Root while also matching his tally of 62 wickets. Elite company.

And so, England’s premier batter also became their most reliable bowler. At one point he was also their spiritual leader, summoning the ghost of Stuart Broad in changing the bails in the hope it would change England’s luck. They managed two quick wickets afterwards.

It would not be a surprise to see Root driving the team bus on Saturday morning. If the chef was not getting such rave reviews, Root would be in the kitchen too.

If England are already in a dire position, there is plenty they can take from what has already happened and what is still to come in Hyderabad.

Firstly, they must use their reviews more smartly, and not fritter them away like they did inside 13.2 overs on the first evening. With spin almost the only thing on the menu, there is a lot going on – bats and pads together, tiny edges to the keeper, marginal leg-before decisions. Reviews are like gold dust.

If the callow spin attack is going to struggle, then every half or even quarter-chance in the field has to be taken. Stokes flailing around trying to catch Shubman Gill at mid-on on the second morning did not prove costly, but Ben Foakes’ drop off KL Rahul did, even if the umpire signalled byes.

Moreover, the batters have to make enough runs to take the pressure off the bowlers. In fairness, not many were guilty of loose strokes on Thursday, but those that get in have to make it count.

England can take inspiration from that last series victory in 2012, when they took a hammering in the first Test but came back to win 2-1.

Yes, a prime factor was Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar outspinning their India counterparts, but England’s recovery began in the second innings of the first Test, when Alastair Cook’s epic 176 showed the way to the rest of the batters.

Even if England do lose in Hyderabad, someone landing a Cook-style blow in the second innings might set them on the way for the rest of the series.

Not that England are beaten yet.

“I’ve never seen that team with their heads down,” said England assistant coach Jeetan Patel.

“They rock into work every morning excited about the opportunity. They’ll do it tomorrow and again the day after that.

“It’s a non-negotiable to be excited to be at work and excited to put it in for your team-mates. The result is the result. How we go about what we do is the most important thing.”

Nobody said it was easy. Nobody said it would be this hard.

Now, it is a question of progress.


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