England ran out of steam against a more resourceful and resilient Indian side but the series loss doesn’t warrant a requiem for Bazball. The four Tests have been riveting and the score-line could have been narrower if England had been a trifle more diligent, or India a tad lax.

England's Ben Stokes and teammates await for the third umpire decision after taking a DRS review for the possible wicket of India's Yashasvi Jaiswal (REUTERS) PREMIUM
England’s Ben Stokes and teammates await for the third umpire decision after taking a DRS review for the possible wicket of India’s Yashasvi Jaiswal (REUTERS)

All said, 14 wins in 22 Tests (since Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes joined hands) is fantastic achievement. The win-percentage is impressive. While the sample size and time frame is not huge, there is no doubt that Bazball has added new flavour, colour and character to Test cricket which was otherwise tottering from the onslaught of the glitzy, dizzying, slam-bang whirl of T20.

However, England have also lost five of the last 9 Tests they’ve played — two against Australia last year and three on the trot against India in the ongoing rubber — which should be disquieting for McCullum and Stokes. Mind you, Australia were the World Test Champions. India, runners-up to them in WTC, had won 16 series on the trot at home. Losing to these formidable teams is no shame. But some of these defeats have shown up streaks of vulnerability, in tactics and temperament, that put Bazball under scrutiny.

A madcap declaration in the first Test last year cost England the match and opportunity to regain the Ashes. Against India, after winning the first Test against heavy odds, England surrendered the advantage with some profligate batting in the next three Tests, mistaking recklessness for fearlessness, leading to shocking collapses.

A 3-0 sweep against Pakistan in Pakistan had given ballast to England’s hopes of winning this series in India. But while pitches in the sub-continent may be similar, the quality of players in India and Pakistan, their technical and mental make-up, differ substantially. On evidence of matches played over the last decade, it would be fair to say that Indian cricket is currently streets ahead. England needed to do something different, if not extraordinary, to beat India.

Despite admirable performances by young, inexperienced players, batsmen and bowlers, I believe England stumbled because of below-par performances by major domos Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes who have rich international experience and are India veterans.

Root’s travails have been the most discussed, because he is the team’s most accomplished batsman. He played some atrocious strokes when the match was in the balance. Root made a sublime century in the fourth Test to reiterate his class, but by then, too much had been squandered.

Bairstow was zombie-like and a walking wicket for the bowlers. Stokes, player of mighty, heroic deeds, seemed wrapped in a Hamletian dilemma whether to play forward or back, leading to him to doom repeatedly.

Going by their career averages, each is at least a100 runs short so far in this series, which is the difference between being 1-3 down or 3-1 up at this point. In contrast, while India’s young players have justifiably become the toast of the country for their sparkling and gutsy performances, old hands, Rohit Sharma, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah rose to the occasion whenever the situation demanded.

Bazball is structured around strong self-belief, an unapologetically aggressive approach, to take the game forward. It involves some bluff and bluster as also hustling opponents through brazen risk-taking. But the high-octane method, manifest largely in batting, cannot be an end in itself; If something’s not working, an alternative has to be found, and during course of play itself.

It is impossible to play Test cricket to the same rhythm and beat at all times. Five-day cricket often entails taking a step back to move two steps forwards. Sometimes it needs throwing caution to the winds for a spell to win a crucial phase of play. Assessing situations as they evolve and playing accordingly to maximise team advantage is of the crux. Adaptability, rather than dogmatic pursuit of a tactic is a necessary onus, imposed on players, especially the best ones.

In the 1983-84 home series against West Indies, in the first Test at Kanpur, when an express delivery from Malcolm Marshall knocked the bat out of maestro Sunil Gavaskar’s hands, there was a feeling of national doom. Some critics saw this as the end of Gavaskar’s career. But Gavaskar saw it as a trigger to revise his tactics. In the next Test at Delhi he smashed a brilliant, counter-attacking century, his 29th.

Realising that only stout defence, even allowing for his technical virtuosity, would not work against the Marshall, Roberts, Holding, Daniel, Gavaskar changed his approach. This was not done whimsically, but by assessing the pitch, conditions and match situations swiftly. In the Ahmedabad Test too he scored 90 at breakneck speed as wickets tumbled around him on a bowler friendly pitch. But in In the last Test at Madras, Gavaskar walked out to bat at 0-2, sussed out the sluggish pitch within a few overs, and dug in for a mammoth 236 not out to go past Sir Don Bradman’s record number of Test centuries.

That India lost the rubber 0-3 is not the germane issue here, rather how the team’s main batsman adapted to the demands of match situations and conditions. Closer to our times, steadfast Alastair Cook and uber-attacking Kevin Pietersen, in their distinctive styles, showed this in the 2012-13 rubber when England pulled off an unexpected series win against India. Incidentally, that was the the last rubber India have lost at home.

Strong leadership, off-beat tactics and strategies can lift teams out of mediocrity if the talent is good and performs to potential consistently. But the most important attributes of a great team is ability and durability win matches in different conditions and all opponents over a longish period of time. Three successive defeats this series leaves England , in spite of Bazball, languishing at no.9 in the World Test Championship table currently. They are a competitive and entertaining side, but a long way off from being a great one.

Meanwhile, this series win has made India’s passage into the final of the World Test Championship that much easier. Twice running India have flopped in winning the coveted title, which has been acutely disappointing and has put an asterisk of doubt against India being considered a great Test side despite the avalanche of home wins.. Overcoming this hurdle must now become the primary objective of the team management and players. While the WTC final is many months away, Beating England in the final Test at Dharamshala would be a show of strong intent towards this end.


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