Brendon McCullum says England will “put their shoulder down” and go hard against India once they return from a planned six-day break in Abu Dhabi.
Defeat against India in the second Test in Visakhapatnam is now followed by extra time in their preferred desert retreat, with England opting to leave the country until three days before the series resumes at 1- 1 in Rajkot on February 15. It is understood that most of their equipment will be left behind, with families expected to join them and golf likely to feature prominently.
Traveling 2,000 miles to get there comes with the blessing of their hosts, but is not without a broader perception problem. In practical terms, however, it offers a chance to recharge away from the well-intentioned but sometimes intense off-field attention that both teams attract. Resting at the nets or tour matches is also a modern trend, much like Australian players dispersing to different parts of Europe in the middle of the Ashes series last summer.
“There won’t be much training,” McCullum, England’s head coach, said before their departure on Wednesday. “We’ve had a lot of days of training, two tests, and this is an opportunity to get away from the heat of battle. I was talking to Rahul Dravid (India head coach) and he told me that all his boys were also shooting at home.
“Home for us is a bit far so we chose Abu Dhabi and we are going to take advantage of the families (who are joining us). Then when we get to Rajkot we drop the shoulder and go hard.
The rugby analogy was mixed here with boxing as McCullum applied the rule in the first two tests before the start, with the New Zealander describing the series as a “heavyweight fight” of contrasting styles and marveling at the entertainment it produced.
After failing to counter Jasprit Bumrah’s nine-wicket excellence in the second contest, it was admitted that the Indian attack leader would be discussed over the next few days. “We don’t really do theories,” McCullum said. “It’s about making sure the guys are totally clear and present, confident and convinced in their method.”
One player who may have lacked that in the first two Tests was Joe Root, whose prowess in Asia – 2,169 runs at an average of 46 – made four modest scores all the more surprising. Bowling duties exacerbated by Jack Leach’s injury in the first Test added to his workload, while a finger problem in the second may have played on his mind.
But Root’s struggle against Bumrah and his dismissal during the thwarted chase of 399 – a point shot against Ravichandran Ashwin’s angle from the wicket – continues the debate over whether his classic approach is sometimes compromised by orders to aggressive team. In fairness, while Root’s strike rate of 75 under Ben Stokes is 19 runs higher than his career overall, an average of 52 over that period is also higher.
“People will look at the dismissal, but look at the method of his option,” said McCullum, who confirmed Root’s finger problem had improved. “He was trying to reclaim the field so he could milk them. Sometimes you have to have courage and sometimes you get through it. But that’s how the game goes. From our point of view, there is no doubt about this approach. There are three tests left; opportunity to score a ton of points.
That England have so far exceeded expectations was mainly down to Ollie Pope’s 196 in Hyderabad, but also a spinning attack which belied their inexperience and overcame the knee injury suffered by Jack Leach. Tom Hartley, Shoaib Bashir and Rehan Ahmed shared 26 out of 32 wickets as India were bowled out in all four innings.
“The one thing I guess you don’t know in the heat of the moment is the character that guys have,” McCullum said. “The development of the young spinners has been fantastic. Not just their skills, but their passion for wanting to experience the big moments. I entrusted it to the skipper. He spends time with people to make sure his message is really consistent, as well as his body language and behaviors. He supports them with opportunities on the ground.
McCullum admitted slight frustration with the lack of opportunities for spinners in the county system – the England and Wales Cricket Board’s 2022 high performance review showed that only 22% of overs are bowled by spinners, the lowest of all domestic first-class competitions – and explained why attributes such as delivery points and bowling speeds trumped traditional measures.
“It’s difficult, isn’t it, because you don’t want to try to instruct the county teams, who have their own agendas. This is where you have to be courageous (in selection). This is no disrespect to the people who play county cricket, but on these surfaces and in these conditions we needed certain types of bowlers who would be effective.
“We looked at India’s line-up – Ashwin, (Ravindra) Jadeja and Axar Patel – and the points of difference that normal spinners don’t have. We tried to replicate that as best we could. So far, so good. We’ll see where this lands (in the rest of the series) but it’s encouraging to see.