New Delhi, Jan 19: Come January 25 and the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad will see the commencement of a highly-anticipated men’s Test series between India and England. India secured a 3-1 win when the two teams last met in the country in 2021.
A lot has changed for England since then, with the side now playing an attacking brand of cricket under head coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes. With the duo at helm, England are yet to lose a Test series and arrive in India to become the first visiting team to win a men's Test series in India since their remarkable 2-1 triumph in 2012.
Former England fast-bowler Steve Harmison, who played 62 Tests, speaks exclusively to IANS about the upcoming men’s Test series, the reasoning of the visitors’ attacking approach, the factors which would turn out to be the series decider and more. Excerpts:
Q. What is your initial analysis of England’s chances ahead of the Test tour of India?
A. Its going to be a tough series from England’s point of view. Playing against India in India has always been challenging. But it’s always good fun and England were successful in the past, like Kevin Pietersen and Sir Alastair Cook made hundreds in Mumbai in 2012 under the captaincy of Sir Andrew Strauss, and won the series.
All in all, it’s going to be a tough series, but England are going to be mindful about the tough conditions on offer. It’s always incredibly tough for anybody going to India now, in terms of environment, conditions and the quality of their spin bowling department. The likes of Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja can cause a hell lot of trouble for any team playing Test cricket in India.
But the mindset of England under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes has been of positivity, especially in conditions away from home. Under the duo in the recent past, England will feel confident that they can go and put pressure on India and try to force a result.
Q. You have witnessed England’s transformation in Tests via an attacking approach. Could you explain the rationale and theory behind this successful method for England?
A. They find ways to be as possibly positive as they can be in any situation, they get themselves in. Now in Pakistan, they were brilliant; their decisions when the game got tight or were put under pressure, they found a way to come out, whether that was with bat or ball. There are and have been times in the past where it looked and appeared reckless.
I can give two-three examples during the summer, like at Lord’s in the Ashes, where England’s positivity worked against them. It was more negative than it was reckless. All in all, since McCullum and Stokes have come together, what they have tried to do is, give the players who are playing in the environment, the freedom to express themselves, and take the positive option.
It’s also the freedom to make sure that when the pressure is on, they don't buckle under the pressure, but do not make it feel on the players’ shoulders in order to be comfortable in making decisions. It’s the freedom of expression to go out there and be the best version of what you are at the cricket, which has been very important in the Stokes-McCullum regime.
Q. How do you see the batting line-ups of India and England stacking up against each other?
A. India will fancy their chances in their own environment, especially with Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in their batting line-up. England, though, will feel that there are some vulnerabilities in that batting line-up. When I toured India, you had those big batters in the likes of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman – all stellar players.
I am not sure if it’s as intimidating as it was back in the day. Shubman Gill is a very talented player and Yashasvi Jaiswal is a good player, so as Shreyas Iyer. But I don’t think there are more of established international players in red-ball as compared to white-ball set-up. England are also looking at their batting in a similar way.
Ben Duckett is still finding his way, while Zak Crawley is still trying to find his way, though he’s an exciting talent. So, Ben Stokes and Joe Root will have to shoulder the burden and the majority of pressure if England are to perform with the bat.
A lot of their success with the bat will be largely down to Joe Root having one of his better series because he’s the best player of spin in the current line-up, and is amongst the modern-day great players of this generation alongside Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson.
Q. England’s spin attack will be led by Jack Leach, alongside three young spinners in Rehan Ahmed, Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley. How crucial would Stokes’ role will be to inspire the spin attack for putting their best foot forward?
A. When it comes to the quality, there is no question about the marked difference in quality of spin-bowling attacks between England and India. So, the most important person for me in this whole thing is not just the bowlers; it’s the captain Ben Stokes too.
Stokes will want for the field to be up, get the bowlers to attack and believe that this is the right plan going the right way. So, the psychologist in Stokes will have to come out a lot, not just for Jack Leach, but also for the three spinners who haven’t played in India before.
Stokes will have to use all of his experience – be it the leadership qualities or psychological powers – which will take care of the young bowlers if they come under pressure, because more often than not, the Indian batters will try to be aggressive against them. Mentally also, Stokes will have to make sure that the young bowlers stay in the moment and deliver their skills, which is the biggest challenge for him as the England captain.
Q. How do you draw the comparison between the fast-bowling line-ups of India and England?
A. Both teams would be happy with their fast-bowling line-ups. Mohammed Shami is one of the best bowlers of the present time, whether it’s red-ball or white-ball cricket. He will be a big miss for India in the initial period. India are well-suited with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj, but if Shami is available later, he will enter the equation.
England have James Anderson, who did bowl well when he was in India last time. I can see him doing the same thing again, as England are going to use his experience wisely. Plus, they have little breaks in between the Test matches, which I think would be important for Anderson (in recovery).
So, they might go in with one of Anderson, Robinson, Wood or Atkinson in these games, where England would need a sublime and skillful fast-bowler. England have picked their best four possible fast-bowling options. Then England can back it up with two spinners and Joe Root to bowl. I wouldn’t be surprised if either of Brydon Carse or Matthew Potts, who are playing well for England Lions against India ‘A’ currently, or even both of them stay in India for remainder of the series.
Q. Ben Duckett said on the Sky Sports Cricket Podcast that England will also be preparing for the relentlessness of India’s fast-bowling attack. How much crucial will that factor be in the series?
A. Absolutely, there will be no stone unturned as England will ensure they are ready to face both spin and seam. The most important thing for England will be to not lose wickets to India’s seam-bowling department because that puts the middle-order under pressure when the spin bowlers do come on.
So, it becomes very important for England’s batters to respect both the spin and more importantly, the seam bowling overs. You just can’t take Jasprit Bumrah or Mohammed Siraj lightly, as they are world-class operators. So, it’s going to be a challenge and that might be the difference between the two teams.
When it comes to where the series is won or lost at the end when it’s time to reflect on whatever the scores are, it wouldn’t surprise me if picking 20 wickets in the bowling department is the difference between England’s win and loss, as well as in India either winning or losing.
Q. England are currently practising in Abu Dhabi, a move which you had criticised. Do you still stand by your opinion on their mode of preparation?
A. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would still like for them to have more practice time in India. I'm not a big advocate for warm-up games as I don’t think they are necessary anymore and guys play enough cricket around the world now.
My comments that time were a little harsher and were born out of seeing the bowlers who haven’t bowled in India previously, especially the three spin bowlers. I understand why they are practising in Abu Dhabi, as the facilities there are unbelievable. England will then be very well prepared when they come to playing in India.
But for them to have two-three young spinners, who haven’t bowled in India previously, and to arrive only three days before the first Test, I think that was why I still stand by it. I still don't think it's enough time, though England won in Pakistan on the back of preparing in Abu Dhabi.
But I believe this series will be of a different gear as there is a gulf between Pakistan and India when it comes to playing on the pitches. I would have liked to see them spend more time on the ground in India, but they have gone the way of practising in Abu Dhabi and let’s see what happens.
Q. Do playing the Tests away from non-traditional venues also adds to England’s challenge on the trip to India?
A. Absolutely and that’s why I would have liked for them to spend time more on the ground for just that little bit longer. They are not playing at Wankhede Stadium, Eden Gardens and Chinnaswamy Stadium. Though they have played before in Rajkot and Visakhapatnam, which are fine places, but it’s going to be difficult for them. England’s players do play in the IPL and were here for the World Cup last year. But going into these venues in India for the Tests, it is going to be a little bit difficult.
Q. Sometimes while playing Tests in India, runs are dried up and batters have to grind it out. Similarly for the bowlers, they have to play the waiting game before getting a wicket. Do you think England will be able to adjust in situations like that if needed during the Test series?
A. When you break it down, a lot of people say that Bazball is about being ultra-positive and hitting sixes and fours. McCullum and Stokes have tried to strip away any negativity, pressure on the individuals, team and try and get the team to play as naturally as they possibly can to be the best version of themselves.
If the game situation means they need to play without boundaries in a session, they will do that and I have got no doubt whatsoever about it. I don't think they'll be as reckless as what they were in the summer. England are very good at playing situations and if a situation needs them to be a little bit more reserved, they will be that. They will make sure that whatever situation they are in, they will try to counter it to the best of their abilities and become the best version of themselves.
Q. Finally, for you, how thrilling is the prospect to commentate on radio for talkSPORT on the India-England Tests?
A. It's really exciting to broadcast on the radio where you feel as though you've got more time to paint a picture of India which is a great place, as well as of two fantastic sides and modern-day greats. To have the ability to commentate and broadcast that, talk about greats of the game and bring an insight into what it is like to play Tests in India, it's exciting. Hopefully, people will enjoy listening to it.
The live radio commentary for India’s five-match Test series against England will be available via the talkSPORT Cricket YouTube page and the talkSPORT app. (IANS)