England’s first-Test win in India saw logic overpowered by belief

Ollie Pope swept his way to a magnificent 196 in the second innings (Picture: Getty)

The laws of the universe, let alone cricket, say you don’t win in India after conceding a 190-run deficit on first innings, not if you are the visiting team.

But Ben Stokes’ England side have made a habit of tearing up the convention playbook then stuffing the pages down the throats of those still sceptical about the power of Bazball and the strength of character it inspires.

The sheer chutzpah of it all is breathtaking and taps into something greater than sport, investing believers – and Stokes (below) and his team really believe – in an indomitable zeal.

How else do you explain the extraordinary qualities shown by two players, Ollie Pope and Tom Hartley, who had just days earlier shown a fallibility deserving of sympathy cards? Take Pope. He looked bamboozled by India’s bowlers in England’s first innings, where he made one run in 11 balls before being caught at slip off left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja.

A nervy starter with a habit of thrusting hard hands at the ball, Pope showed all the signs of one entirely unsuited to making runs on India’s dusty, turning pitches.

Not everyone can play spin as assuredly as Brian Lara but what Pope did second time around, and what all great problem-solvers do, is he found a way to thrive. Not the classic way, perhaps, but his way and he was rewarded with a match-winning 196, an innings many are now saying is the best ever played by a visiting batsman on Indian soil.

Tom Hartley had plenty to celebrate with seven wickets on day four in Hyderabad

Tom Hartley had plenty to celebrate with seven wickets on day four in Hyderabad (Picture: Reuters)

This was no Damascene conversion on Pope’s part. He didn’t suddenly start playing with baby soft hands or playing late, off the back foot and riding the spin as Lara would have done. No, he played hard sweeps, both reverse and standard, his upbringing at Cranleigh school, with its broad spectrum of sports like hockey and squash, making such shots second nature to him.

As India’s coach, Rahul Dravid, said afterwards, sweep shots are high risk on turning pitches but Pope hardly fluffed one and he played plenty, a high proportion of them going for four. He still went with hard hands and disobeyed many of the other diktats of convention, but he managed risk well, riding the bits of luck every batsman needs when the ball is turning sharply.

This is where the power of belief and the backing of others overrides other considerations. Lara is the best player of spin I’ve ever seen but would he have made 196 in England’s second innings? I doubt it. But does that make Pope better than Lara? On the day, yes, but not otherwise.

But that, in its way, is what Bazball is all about. It has drummed into players that consistency, while an admirable goal, should not be fretted over. Just as long as someone turns up on the day, there’s a chance.

Happily, Hartley, another who looked out of sorts in the early exchanges, also turned up, his big moment coming on the fourth day when he took seven for 62 – the second best figures ever for an England spinner on Test debut.

Many have made capital of Hartley’s first ball of the match being struck for six, as if this was evidence of some kind of haplessness.

Captain Ben Stokes was a happy man after the first Test

Captain Ben Stokes was a happy man after the first Test (Picture: Getty)

It wasn’t. Instead, it was a calculated assault from India’s young opening batsman, Yashasvi Jaiswal, to unnerve England’s new spinner, a gambit that worked when Hartley dragged down more than the odd long-hop in the first innings.

Debuts are nervous things but we shouldn’t be surprised by Hartley’s growing confidence and success, bolstered as they would have been by his two valuable contributions with the bat.

Anyway, pitches like those in Hyderabad are what most spinners dream about and once he had found the optimal pace for his left-arm spin, in terms of the pitch and his own rhythm, he was a constant threat.

Obviously India’s batsmen are fine players of the turning ball but when you reduce the number of boundary options, something Hartley did through better consistency of length and line and Stokes did through cagey field settings, pressure can be built.

India were also complacent, their batsmen reasoning that if England could make 420 in their third innings, then the pitch demons cannot have been too difficult. They were wrong.

Hartley got regular, sharp turn and while England’s other spinners weren’t quite as threatening, their collective meltdown would have been the only way India could have won once they had lost captain Rohit Sharma lbw to one of the few that did not spin.

England's record wicket-taker James Anderson could be call on for the second Test

England’s record wicket-taker James Anderson could be call on for the second Test (Picture: Getty)

With four Tests remaining, speculation is rife as to how India might counter this defeat. In 2021, England went one-nil up and India’s response was to double down on making the pitches turn even more.

It worked and they won the remaining three Tests easily. But preparing pitches to turn square from the outset can be risky as it means the differing abilities of spin bowlers is not as pronounced.

This helps England, who may be without Jack Leach, their most experienced tweaker, for Friday’s second Test in Visakhapatnam, after he hurt his knee during the match.

If the pitch is made to turn in Vizag, I still think England could shed a spinner (two plus Joe Root is enough) and play either the extra batsman, Dan Lawrence, or another pace bowler, James Anderson or Ollie Robinson.

At Hyderabad, Rehan Ahmed struggled to be as effective as the other tweakers, wrist-spin being more difficult to control than finger-spin on slow surfaces. Yet England like Rehan’s bubbly confidence and when you can keep pulling rabbits out of hats as often they do, their logic, or lack of, is hard to question.


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