Joy Unconfined: Test Cricket at its Best

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

At close of play on an action-packed first day of the first Test at Hyderabad, India were 119 for one off 23 overs in response to England’s 246. India’s exciting young opener, Yashasvi Jaiswal, had taken gleefully to the offerings of debutant slow left armer Tom Hartley, hitting two sixes in his first over, including one off his first ball. England’s innings featured a brilliant seventy from captain Ben Stokes and a reassuringly composed and untroubled 37 from Jonny Bairstow. But generally one was bound to ask, was 246 enough? After all, Stokes had won the toss. On England’s 2016-17 tour, under Alastair Cook, they had twice won the toss, batted first, made over 400 – and lost by an innings. (They lost that five match series four-nil.)

Hence my WhatsApp message to friends that evening; “Innings defeat looms, I fear”. The responses, all from England supporters who know what they are talking about, ranged from “Inevitably!”, through “Yup”, to “Certainly possible, even probable”. Nobody said “What do you mean, of course England will win!”

Things didn’t look a lot better on the second day. England had used all their reviews by the thirteenth over, which didn’t help. By close of play India were 421 for seven, a lead of 175.

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None of this came as a huge surprise. The dominance of India at home in recent years has been unarguable, comparable to Australia’s during the Mark Taylor-Steve Waugh years, and West Indies in the 1980s. (They can be more vulnerable away from home, though they have won their last two series in Australia). They have three top-class spinners and, in Jasprit Bumrah, arguably the best pace bowler in the world. The last time India lost a series at home was to Cook’s England in 2012-13. They have lost only four matches at home since then, including the first Test at Chennai to Joe Root’s team in the COVID series of 2020-21. (England lost the four-match series three-one.) Everybody predicted that India would win the series. There was real concern about the spin attack, comprising Jack Leach, who hadn’t played since the Ireland Test in June 2023 and three youngsters who had played one Test between them. Many conceded that England were good enough to win one Test. Of course both these result predictions may turn out to be correct. But it can safely be said that nobody – nobody, not even Stokes himself – could have predicted what happened on the third and fourth days at Hyderabad.

England had a good start to the third day, Root – England’s most reliable bowler in the first innings – and the nineteen-year old leg-spinner Renan Ahmed polished off the Indian tail. The first-innings lead was 190. As everyone now knows no team had previously won a Test in India after conceding a deficit of more than 64. What is the atmosphere like in the visitors’ dressing room in India when you are going in to bat in those conditions facing a deficit of 190? Do you really think you can win? I guess it all depends. I think it is fair to say that neither Cook’s side of 2016-17 nor Root’s side of 2020-21 would have thought they could win in those circumstances. I must stress that this is not a criticism of Root or Cook; indeed, it is interesting to speculate about Cook’s 2012-13 side which included Kevin Pietersen. The fact is, though, that few sides would contemplate victory when confronted by such a deficit. Of course history does present those rare matches, Botham’s Test at Headingley in 1981, for example, or the VVS Laxman match against Australia at Kolkata in 2000-01, where a match is turned on its head by an almost freakish individual performance, or two. It may well be that Hyderabad will come to be remembered as one of those games. I think, though, that it showed us something else. First, it showed the wonder and the unique character of Test cricket, and accentuated the almost criminal negligence of the game’s administrators whose simple task is to cherish and nurture it but who are allowing it to wither and die. And secondly it told us something about Bazball. I said that even Stokes could not have foreseen what happened. He might have dreamed about it. Who knows or cares, we are not talking about fantasy here. It was Stokes – and Brendon McCullum – who made it happen. That is a fact. As the recent book on the subject by Lawrence Booth and Nick Hoult makes clear, Bazball is not a matter of whacking boundaries and making weird declarations; it is a mindset. It covers everything. And at Hyderabad, it turned Hartley, and Ollie Pope, into match winners. Many captains would have taken Hartley off after his first three overs went for 36; Stokes didn’t, he kept encouraging his bowler. Maybe Hartley regretted that at the time: it didn’t seem to have done much damage when it came to the second innings.

So England began their second innings after lunch on the third day. They were all out just before lunch on the fourth day, for 420. Of that 420, the three stars of the batting line-up, Root, Bairstow and Stokes, made eighteen between them. Mark Wood made nought and Leach nought not out; five others made between 28 and 47; and Pope, the vice-captain, who hadn’t played a match since the Lord’s Test against Australia, made a most remarkable 196.

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Pope has always looked fantastic but he hasn’t consistently produced the goods. He played all four Tests on Root’s tour of India, making a top score of 34 and averaging 19; he was fourth in the averages – England were that good. An average in the mid-thirties does not immediately suggest greatness. But it is universally acknowledged that this innings had the mark of greatness on it. Rahul Dravid, no less, said he had never seen a better innings by a foreign batter in India.

As in all the great innings, it was the decision making that was crucial. Pope always seems a bit frantic at the start of an innings. In the first innings, when he made one off eleven balls, he never got beyond the frantic stage. But in the second innings his mastery was complete, always from the start. He always knew when to go forward and when to go back. He always knew when to accelerate and when to hold back. Opener Ben Duckett had illustrated the value of the reverse sweep; Pope took the sweep and the reverse to a new level. The Indian spinners, who made the English batters, Root apart, look like novices in 2020-21, were now the ones at a loss. He displayed his glorious drives when the mood or the situation demanded. And he could be exotic; although it was sad that he missed his double century there was something appropriate about his being bowled by Bumrah attempting a reverse scoop. The innings took 278 balls, and Pope hit twenty-one fours and no sixes. But it was Bazball par excellence.

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When Stokes was out in the 37th over the score was 163 for five and it was still not inconceivable that the match would be over in three days. But Ben Foakes (34) then helped Pope add 112 for the sixth wicket in what turned out to be the most significant partnership of the match. (Had Harry Brook not returned to England for personal reasons, one of these two would not have been playing.) India began to look a little downhearted in the field. Pope was dropped by Axar Patel on 110, an absolutely crucial miss. And when Foakes was out England just carried on, on the third afternoon and the fourth morning, Rehan and Hartley both out scoring Pope in what must have been to the Indians infuriating partnerships.

A target of 231 against England’s seemingly threadbare attack – Leach was now going to be operating, if at all, on one leg – meant that India were still the bookies’ favourites. India started steadily enough but then Jaiswal and Shubman Gill both fell to brilliant close catches by Pope off the bowling of Hartley. With the experience of captain Rohit Sharma, in-form K L Rahul and the brilliant Ravindra Jadeja to call on, India still seemed likely winners. Then Sharma was plumb leg before to Hartley – 95 for three – and somehow the mood of the innings changed. Rahul went into his shell, rather as he had done in the World Cup final. Patel was promoted, to try to counter the left arm spin, to no perceivable effect. Wickets continued to fall, none more dramatic than the brilliant run out of the dangerous Jadeja by – who else – Stokes. England were now firm favourites but the game still had more to give. Srikar Bharat and Ravichandran Ashwin put on 57 for the eighth wicket and there was a farcical final act with Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj doing a Keystone Cops routine and Foakes claiming a stumping every other ball. Stokes claimed the extra half hour and Hartley, for whom everyone had felt so sorry 48 hours earlier, administered the coup de grace and finished with seven for 62. The margin of victory was 28 runs.

Hartley seemed almost a different bowler in the second innings, more measured. Of course he is still very inexperienced. It will be interesting to see how the Indian batters deal with him in the other Tests; Leach will miss the second Test.

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Stokes said it was the best victory achieved under his captaincy. His side have achieved some memorable wins, at home and away. It must rank among the very best of England’s wins, bearing in mind the strength of the opposition and the match situation at the halfway point. India’s big first innings lead should have been even bigger. Three of their top six got into the eighties and five were caught in the deep. But, as many have commented, India didn’t lose this match; England won it. Sharma seemed genuinely baffled at the post-match press conference. And it is now clear that Jadeja and Rahul will miss the second Test, along with Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami. Who knows, England might avoid the seemingly inevitable four-one defeat.

What made this marvellous Test match even better was that it coincided with an equally extraordinary game at Brisbane, where West Indies best Australia to level the two-match so-called “series”. There were many notable features of this game. One of them was that this was the first time West Indies had beaten Australia in Australia since 1997. Brian Lara, Carl Hooper and Ian Bishop, who all played in that last victory, were present to watch this one.

This was a day-night game. It was a close, low-scoring game – at one stage in their first innings Australia were 24 for four. The final equation was that Australia needed 216 to win. On the third evening they were 60 for two with new opener Steve Smith on 33 and new number four Cameron Green on nine. It looked pretty straightforward for the home side.

The dominant figure on the fourth and final day was the Guyanese pace bowler Shamar Joseph, who had made his debut in the first Test at Adelaide, taking five for 94 in Australia’s first innings. Eighteen months earlier he had been working as a security guard and playing tape-ball cricket. Anyway he had retired hurt at the end of West Indies second Innings at Brisbane, having been hit on the foot by a ball from Mitchell Starc. He had a severely bruised big toe.

Captain Kraigg Braithwaite told Joseph to come to the ground on the final day but he didn’t bring his kit; he was very surprised to be told to get ready to play.

He did not bowl for a while but when he did the results were immediate and startling. His first over went for ten. In his second over he bowled Green for 42 and Travis Head first ball; Head suffered the rare indignity of a king pair. Australia were now 113 for four, still in front, one would think. But Joseph seemed unstoppable. He dismissed Mitchell Marsh and Alex Carey cheaply – 136 for six. Starc hit out a bit and helped Smith add 35. The game was incredibly tense and there were only eight runs in it when Joseph bowled last man Josh Hazlewood. Joseph finished with seven for 68. Smith carried his bat for 91. You couldn’t make it up.

If one were to pick a single image from these two wonderful Tests, what would it be? There are so many to choose from. Jaiswal clobbering Hartley’s first ball for six; beautiful strokeplay by Pope; Stokes running out Jadeja; Kevin Sinclair’s cartwheel celebration. I think there is one stand-out image; I’m looking at it on my phone now. Joseph bowls to Hazlewood; the ball clatters into the stumps and the game is over. Joseph just keeps running, a mad victory lap, his teammates in hot pursuit.

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Joy unconfined: that is what Test cricket at its best gives you.

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