Captain confident: Ben Stokes’s leadership shows England’s approach to Tests is much more than ‘Bazball’

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Captain confident: Ben Stokes’s leadership shows England’s approach to Tests is much more than ‘Bazball’

By Samreen Razzaqui

You don’t come to India and immediately come up with your biggest triumph as a leader. Not when India have a fearsome record at home. Not when you’re going in with an attack of inexperienced spinners. Not when you are being accused of being “undercooked.”

But, expect English captain Ben Stokes to do things differently.

Stokes's team took a thrilling opening Test in Hyderabad on January 28 after overcoming a 190-run first innings deficit and then, went down all guns blazing in a record 399-run chase in the second Test in Visakhapatnam on Monday. 

On both occasions, Stokes seemed to have the belief and did a solid job inspiring his players, be it England's rookie spinners Tom Hartley, Shoaib Bashir and Rehan Ahmed or the veteran fast bowler James Anderson.

As a result, debutants Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir, one-Test veteran Rehan Ahmed, the experienced Jack Leach and part-timer Joe Root, managed to challenge India's batters, who are usually masters on spinning tracks.

Between them, England’s spinners have taken 33 wickets in the two Tests whereas the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav have only managed 23.

Meanwhile Anderson has stood out in his fast-bowling performance even on placid pitches.

In the Test cricket arena, the term “Bazball” – referring to the manner in which the England cricket team has played in Test matches since head coach Brendon McCullum was appointed –  continues to grow in popularity, but it is worth noting that head coach Brendon McCullum has found an able partner and executioner in Stokes. After the conclusion of two matches in the series so far, England have won 14 out of 20 Tests under the duo since May 2022.

Although it is England’s unconventional batting style that has dominated the discourse, it is Stokes’s clarity of approach and backing of his teammates that has characterised his leadership so far. It is because of Stokes’s unwavering support that Zak Crawley has matured into a formidable opening batter.

Even as he was on the losing end, the English captain backed the process they follow to the hilt and came off as encouraging and secure when Harsha Bhogle asked him about whether it was a challenge to get the best out of the young spin trio.

“I absolutely loved captaining the spinners” said Stokes in the post-match presentation in Visakhapatnam. “To put in the performance they did yesterday was incredible. They showed a lot of maturity beyond the years. I thought what they were able to produce in terms of effort and outcome was incredible.”

It was Stokes who had prompted England Cricket Board’s director Rob Key and McCullum to have a look at Bashir, following an impressive spell against former England captain Alastair Cook on his first-class debut for Somerset against Essex.

With preparation and tactics in mind, reducing “Bazball” to merely aggressive cricket is simplistic after all. The home work he did for Bashir, for example, highlights Stokes’s role beyond team selection, bowling changes and field setting to ensure the success of the approach. Stokes is happy to throw people in and give them the freedom to learn on the job. Even if the assignment is as tough as defeating India at home.

Winning a five-match Test series in India cannot come from a place of ultra-aggression or big-talking, one has to tread with caution or you’ll be made to eat humble pie.

Stokes’s captaincy may attract diverse views across the world, but by admitting that he is observing Rohit Sharma’s captaincy, his field settings and how the Indian spinners are operating and incorporating that into England’s innings, he is doing something right.

Steering away from cockiness has ensured that he hasn’t riled up the Indian team or its fans with talk. In fact, the threat of what England are going to pull off is confined to the cricket they play.

It has compelled India coach Rahul Dravid to also take note of England’s process and acknowledge that its method is, in fact, rooted in effective skill and ability.

It may or may not work out, but with Stokes encouraging his team to stay true to the style, it sure is making his team  look right in it. And in the background of India’s daunting home record, that’s an achievement too.

Fun fact of the week: The French Polynesian island of Tahiti will host all surfing competitions at the 2024 Paris Games later this year. Located 15,771 kilometers from Paris, this will mark the furthest an event has been held from the host city in Olympics history. Previously, the equestrian events for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics were held in Stockholm – 15,610 kilometers away. Australia had strict laws that required the horses to be quarantined for six months. To circumvent this, the International Olympic Committee decided to hold the event in the Swedish capital five months before the games began in Melbourne. 

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