India tour will be Bazball’s ultimate test of ‘positive at all costs’ mindset

England captain Ben Stokes looks on during the England Net Session at Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium ahead of the First Test Match against India on January 23, 2024 in Hyderabad, India
Can Ben Stokes become only the fifth England men's captain to win a series in India? - Getty Images/Stu Forster

India will be the ultimate stress test of the first rule of Bazball, which is to be endlessly positive.

No other tour challenges the senses and a team’s fortitude like this one. The fact only four England captains have won a series here in 90 years tells you that. Bidding to be the fifth is Ben Stokes and already he is deprived of his star young batsman, Harry Brook, and a promising unknown quantity in Shoaib Bashir, who has been unwittingly caught up in the India-Pakistan powerplay because of his family heritage, regardless of the fact he was born in Surrey. Stokes also comes armed with a spin attack based on Jack Leach, who has not bowled for six months, three youngsters and Joe Root.

It is enough to instil a sense of dread but Stokes and Brendon McCullum know only one language and that is to talk up the possibilities on offer here and how to seize the opportunity when what promises to be a fascinating series starts on Thursday. “This is the hardest place to come and win a game, let alone a series, and that’s the exciting thing for us as a group, is that we’ve got an amazing opportunity in front of us to do something,” Stokes said. Mark Wood was at it, too. He said: “Not many teams come here and win. It’s a free hit, to be honest.”

Rehan Ahmed of England looks on during the England training session at Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium on January 22, 2024 in Hyderabad, India
The teenager Rehan Ahmed is one of several spin options England have at their disposal - Getty Images/Philip Brown

When Stokes spoke after training on Tuesday, there was not a whiff of negativity, just confidence in his team, particularly the three specialist spinners, who are greener than any pitch England will see this side of June. “We have picked the spinners who we feel are going to give us the best opportunity to win out here regardless of experience. Sometimes experience can be a little over-rated and overthought,” he said.

McCullum was very vocal at nets whenever Rehan Ahmed beat the bat or found the outside edge, making up imaginary fields for him with four slips, and England’s main training session before the first Test series at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium was lively, with most players looking as though they had lost weight over Christmas and glad to be back together again preparing for their first Test series in six months since the Ashes. “It’s something I’ve noticed and it’s something that every individual has taken upon themselves,” Stokes said about fitness.

There will be plenty in India hoping Bazball crashes and ready with the ‘told you so’ verdicts. But Bazball is not really anything more than a mental tool; a state of mind: be brave, take the positive option always in the pursuit of victory and entertain.

Stuart Broad disclosed recently that he had to train himself to be so bushy-tailed, exaggerating the quality of his morning cappuccino just so he gave off good vibes. It all sounds corny to outsiders but it does work for these players.

They had won one in 17 Tests before the culture change and had 13 out of 18 wins since. Two of the Tests they lost were by one run and two wickets. The Manchester weather denied them the greatest Ashes comeback ever. Rediscovering that buzz (and keeping it) against a team who have lost just three Tests out of 46 at home in a country where claustrophobia can suffocate cricketers, will be a crucial learning point on the journey to the next Ashes.

The test for the Bazballers with the bat will be going hard at Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin, of course, but it is fashioning 20 wickets that will stretch the limits of even Stokes’s fertile imagination. His boldness with fields will give confidence to Tom Hartley, Ahmed and Bashir whenever they play. Australia think they are being funky opening the batting with Steve Smith. Well, Stokes will possibly open the bowling with Root.

England's Joe Root bowls on day five of the first Ashes cricket Test match between England and Australia at Edgbaston in Birmingham, central England on June 20, 2023
Joe Root's bowling will also play a part in India, but even at the start of the innings? Maybe... - AFP/Geoff Caddick

Every player has a story to tell going into the first Test. Can Zak Crawley back up his Ashes performance? Will Ben Duckett melt again to Ashwin? How will Ollie Pope fit back in at three? Can Root bat with controlled aggression? Will Jonny Bairstow react the right way to losing the wicketkeeping gloves? Would Stokes be better at No 3 and how will he cope with Ashwin, too? Is Ben Foakes really good enough with the bat? Can Leach slot back in and be Stokes’s Mr Dependable? Is James Anderson finished?

That is all before you look at three spinners with barely a first-class career between them. Stokes invested a lot of faith in Leach before the stress fracture that robbed him of an Ashes series, giving him the belief he can be more than a containing bowler, shutting down one end. Leach has appeared a foot taller under Stokes so far. “‘First and foremost what he will be able to do is speak to the guys and tell them what it’s like to bowl under my captaincy,” Stokes said.

The pitch is predictably bare at both ends and will turn from day one. It was left open to the sunshine on Tuesday, although it is winter and not unbearably hot, around 25 degrees. India will play three spinners, England likely the same although one will probably be Root. It seems a gamble to go in with one seamer given the fitness records of the quicks on tour.

The absence of Virat Kohli for two Tests makes India’s batting look thinner and puts more emphasis on the success of Rohit Sharma. Opener Yashasvi Jaiswal is still establishing his place and Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill are inconsistent.

The Rajiv Gandhi Stadium proves that cricket grounds were named after politicians long before Narendra Modi got in on the act but while its neon orange seats are striking, there is a faded grandeur about the place. Pigeons were roosting on the top of Gandhi’s portrait – in full cricket whites and leaning on a bat – that sits outside the away dressing room and World Cup branding was still up three months after the stadium hosted its last game.

After messing up the final there is probably more pressure on India than England. For once, staying positive and being bold could come more naturally for visitors than hosts.

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