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Cricket's Wake-Up Call: India's Tactics Tested, England's Prep Proves Pivotal

The victory in Hyderabad is telling of England's preparations for the Test series, and India's lack of it.

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If you were a member of the fourth estate, Sunday was the kind of day that you live for. Whether it was in sports or in national affairs or even international relations.

Historic and dramatic Test cricket finishes, a Sinner acing the tennis courts and of course the usual rumblings in affairs whether national or international. But it is the dramatic Test match cricket action that caught everyone’s attention because everything else seemed routine at times. The kind of finishes we had in Brisbane and Hyderabad was something that everyone will remember for a while.

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The victory in Hyderabad is telling of England's preparations for the Test series, and India's lack of it.

West Indies players celebrate after defeating Australia on the 4th day of their cricket test match in Brisbane, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.

(Photo: PTI)

The Brisbane win for West Indies is probably the start of a new era in Tests for them, but the victory for England in Hyderabad is likely to have a bigger impact on the sport than anything else. India is considered to be unbeatable in Tests at home for the past decade, having lost just three Tests since 2013, and was therefore supposed to be the runaway winners of the series against England even before a ball was bowled. 

However, Ben Stokes' side showed everyone that cricket, more so Test cricket, is very unpredictable and that you cannot just turn up confident that you can win, you need to even prepare for it. That was the major difference between India and England in the first Test.

England was better prepared despite what happened in the first and second innings, as they had been together for a while as a group. A bunch of former cricketers in England criticised their build-up to the series and some even predicted a 0-5  whitewash. But England, especially their head coach Brendon McCullum along with their managing director of England cricket, Rob Key, had a plan. 

They got together in Abu Dhabi with their specialist Test squad and prepared for about a fortnight together. This is a luxury that England has because they have identified players for specific formats and do not like to mix players unnecessarily. What this does is that it gives McCullum and Ben Stokes opportunity to prepare methodically. Now this may work sometimes, may not work sometimes. But in this case it has. 

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The victory in Hyderabad is telling of England's preparations for the Test series, and India's lack of it.

Hyderabad: England's coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes during a practice session ahead of the first Test match between India and England in Hyderabad on 23 Jan, 2024.

(Photo: PTI)

India on the other hand prepared for the series by playing a Mickey Mouse T20I series against Afghanistan which has no meaning in the bigger scheme of things. Unlike England, India is now on a path where they are hell bent on making every player every format except Srikar Bharat and Ravichandran Ashwin. With everyone else there is now an attempt by the selectors and the team management to fit them into every format. This has resulted in underprepared line-ups, especially in Test cricket. We saw that in South Africa where they lost the first Test because of poor preparation, though they did go onto level the series.

But as head coach Rahul Dravid even admitted most of the guys in the batting line-up play a lot of white ball cricket which results in not being able to execute the skills against spinners in Test matches on turning tracks like those in India. The irony is that the guys who perform in domestic red ball cricket like Abhimanyu Easwaran and Sarfaraz Khan are not considered worthy enough to be picked in the squad by the very same esteemed gentlemen. The likes of Easwaran and Khan however have been playing lots of red ball cricket to prepare for such onerous tasks. Then there were others like Priyank Panchal who was also considered a misfit and is now completely out of favour.

What this has done is that the same guys who are in the running for a place in white ball batting line-ups are gunning for a place in Tests and those who are actually cutting their teeth in red ball formats at the domestic level are handed only ‘A’ team badges. 

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The victory in Hyderabad is telling of England's preparations for the Test series, and India's lack of it.

Indian coach Rahul Dravid in a team huddle during the opening Test against England in Hyderabad.

(Photo: BCCI)

It is a given that not everyone who performs at ‘A’ team level may be good enough for Test cricket, but at least give them an opportunity. This is no knee jerk reaction but just an observation that for India to stop having such disasters in Test cricket, they need to once again invest in having specialists like England. If you look at England there are hardly a handful of players who are considered for white ball formats. The rest are specialist Test cricketers who spend all the time honing skills for the longer formats. 

What that does is that it provides clarity of roles and responsibilities. It stems from the top with the skipper Ben Stokes who is committed to the format and has all but given up all kinds of colour in cricket. 

Now not everyone in Indian cricket can be a talisman like Virat Kohli, hence to expect everyone to excel in everything they play in is a bit much. Kohli does not need as much time to adapt to formats as the others because he is that much better. He had probably one net session before the Test series in South Africa and yet managed to score a half-century when the others failed, except KL Rahul. 

The others need time in the middle playing regular red ball cricket and a proper focused preparation for an important Test series against England, than by wasting their time playing meaningless T20Is.

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India has now lost two of their last three Tests at home in the past 10 months. This is a warning sign of the hard times ahead in the longest format. India’s long run of dominance at home in Tests was built around the two brilliant spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

But now Australia last year and England this year have shown that they are preparing better to counter them. They are spending time learning about them and that has resulted in better returns for batters. 

Probably time has come for India to start looking at what next after this magical duo because nothing lasts forever. There is no thought to look at the next line of spinners and bring them into the squad. The reserve spinner Kuldeep Yadav has played 36 first-class games in ten years, whereas in the same time he has featured in 116 List A games and 145 T20s. So again it will take time for him to adjust to the format even though plays so much white ball cricket because there is a lot of adjustment to be done. 

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The victory in Hyderabad is telling of England's preparations for the Test series, and India's lack of it.

(Photo: BCCI)

The other spinner in the line-up, Axar Patel, spun India to a win the last time England came visiting. What did England do to counter him? McCullum and Key spent time scouting for similar bowlers in the county championship. The umpires in the county championship carry a video camera through which Key and McCullum spotted Tom Hartley. Just look at what Hartley did in Hyderabad. 

Imagine India making a similar dramatic choice like bringing in a Saurabh Kumar or Shams Mulani or even the old warhorse Jalaj Saxena just for that one game or for a series. That is called a radical focused format specific approach which is currently lacking in Indian cricket. 
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Unless every format is looked at specifically you will always struggle as India has found out over the past few years. India was quick to junk their Test specialists Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha and even Ishant Sharma. But the next in line is taking that much longer to adjust to the rigours of the toughest format in the sport. 

India will not press the panic button just yet, because the series is still alive. But the warning bells have been ringing for India in Test match format for a while, the problem is that just no one is listening to it. Everything is so short term that no one knows who is going to be around by the time the next Test series will be played. So why bother about long-term planning? 

The coach is around till the T20 World Cup, unfortunately the skipper too may be around till that time and there is no one else of significance to make long-term cricketing decisions. So let us enjoy it as long as everything lasts. After all you may not get such Sundays again in a hurry!

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Indian Cricket Team 

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