In Pope’s attack, glimpses of Pietersen’s 2012 knock. But English Bazball will still need India tweak

McCullum has even hinted at using an all-spin attack but that may change if Indian batters are back in form.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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If you can’t resist comparisons across different eras of English batters, you may have already put Ollie Pope in Ian Bell’s mould, and not merely for his short and stocky frame. After all, Pope resembles Bell’s compact presence at the crease, technical poise in building an innings, and an often assured elegance in stroke production. 

But last week, Pope’s counterattacking big hundred, on a turning track against India in the first test of the current series, reminded one of a great knock by none other than one of Bell’s illustrious teammates – Kevin Pietersen. 

It evoked memories of Pietersen’s monumental 186 in Mumbai – the second of the four-match test series – in 2012, which was one of the key propellants behind a series turnaround. It was remarkable for the display of Pietersen’s widening range and controlled aggression as he went on to prove his mettle on the spinning pitch. In doing so, he tamed the demons of self-doubt that English batters have often grappled with on the turning tracks on their Indian tours over decades. After a long wait, the series turned out to be memorable for a touring English side as the Alastair Cook-led England clinched it 2-1, with wins in Mumbai and Kolkata. 

So it isn’t surprising that last week, when Ollie Pope’s 196 crafted England’s fightback in the first test, India’s former left arm spinner Pragyan Ojha recalled glimpses of Pietersen’s Mumbai knock. It can hardly escape memory that Ojha, India’s leading wicket taker in that series, was at the receiving end for most part of that innings. Given the context of the series, the challenging conditions and the quality of spin attack, Pietersen himself had attached great value to the attack. He ranked it as his second best test innings, above his memorable 158 at Oval in the 2005 Ashes. 

That, however, can’t make one lose sight of how Pope and Pietersen were different in their methods during the course of these memorable innings.

Highly gifted with a flamboyant array of stroke play and fine timing, Pietersen overcame some of his known vulnerabilities by putting his footwork to imposing effect. Pope, a more conventional middle-order test batter, sought a blend of technical finesse with innovative stroke play, as he reverse swept Indian spinners throughout his long knock. The infusion of a bit of attacking enterprise into his craft mirrored the Bazball approach that coach Brendon McCullum and skipper Ben Stokes have brought to England’s test cricket philosophy over the last two years. 

At the same time, Pope’s knock was also remarkable for turning the match on its head as England were staring down the barrel of a defeat after a big first innings deficit and losing early wickets in the second innings. Pope ensured that English bowlers had something to bowl at and they did so remarkably well to wrap up India 28 short of the target.

That’s where England would need more of such performances – like debutant spinner Tom Hartley in the last test – to sustain their  momentum in the series. In their famous 2012 series win, off-spinner Graeme Swaann was ably supported by left-arm spinner Monty Panesar, as the English team adapted their bowling attack well to the spinning conditions. In the remaining four tests of the series too, England would have to see how they can employ their spin battery for more effective use against the strong Indian batting line-up, which would be eager to wrest back the initiative in their home conditions. 

One of the reassuring aspects of the current English team’s approach has been their readiness to adapt to the given surface, and not stray into cribbing about the dust bowl spinning tracks in India. 

McCullum has even hinted at using an all-spin attack based on assessment of pitches at each of the next four venues. While that’s a proposition which would have to wait, perhaps it’s taking into account the unusual fact that in the last few years even Indian test batting has struggled in spinning conditions against quality spin. 

That, however, might change if Indian batters are back in form, and Virat Kohli is back in the team from the third test. Interestingly, Kohli and Ashwin are the only two from that 2012 series who are still in the Indian test squad. 

Besides looking at the correct bowling combination for spinning tracks, England wouldn’t be fiddling much with the batting order. However, they would like stalwarts like Joe Root to stay longer and start scoring big at some point. Even in the 2012 series, the top run-getter for England was Alastair Cook, even though Pietersen’s knock is etched in memory for its turnaround effect.

As England move to the next test starting from Friday, the register of Pope’s knock, or Hartley scalps, would be a reminder of the possibilities of resolutely enterprising cricket even under testing conditions, and probing surfaces. 

In 2012, they had a different manual for taming the demons of subcontinental pitches and overcoming the formidable Indian batting powerhouse. The McCullum-Stokes duo might just be working out the Indian module of Bazball, tinkering it a bit for effect.

This piece was published with AI assistance.


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