India v England, First Test Preview – Being Outside Cricket

After almost six months of exclusively white ball cricket for England, and a decidedly lacklustre six months at that, it is time for the England Test team to once again grace our televisions. Well, some of our televisions. If subscribing to Sky Sports has been a severely limiting factor on who can or chooses to watch live English cricket nowadays, then this series being on TNT Sport (BT Sport rebranded) will restrict viewership even more.

The run up to this series has also seemed oddly muted. The ECB opted to have a ten-day training camp in Abu Dhabi rather than play full matches against teams in India itself. This decision has been justified by the England camp by suggesting that this allows the batters and bowlers more time actually practicing their skills as opposed to just two or four innings in a typical pre-series warm-up. Certainly there is (some) logic in this approach. Host countries are certainly not above using gamesmanship with touring team’s preparations, providing pitches and opponents totally unlike what awaits them in the series for example. At the same time, the majority of the squad won’t have played a full red ball game in six months and may lack ‘match sharpness’ at the beginning of this series.

Both teams have been affected by events at home, with Harry Brook and Virat Kohli leaving the series (at least temporarily) due to personal reasons. I agree (for once) with Jonathan Agnew that this represents a welcome change from the status quo in professional cricket. Decades ago, a cricketer would have been risking their entire career if they left mid-tour due to a family tragedy or the birth of their child. They would have been portrayed in the media as ‘soft’, ‘lacking fortitude’ and ‘weak’, and it would certainly hurt their future chances of selection.

Of course, this evolution within cricket isn’t really due to more enlightened people within teams and the media as much as it is about the shifting power dynamics in the game. Twenty years ago or more, cricketers were really not paid very much. They were dependent on being selected for the national team to pay their bills, often with minimal savings or investments. Governing boards and the often petty selectors would hold this over players even thinking about taking a break. Between both lucrative central contracts (thanks to increased TV rights values) and extensive T20 league opportunities, top cricketers are rarely in desperate need for a pay cheque. Kohli is presumably set for life at this point of his career, but even the relatively young Brook could be in a financial position where he never has to work again at the age of 24. Certainly if he is as frugal as the stereotypical Yorkshire resident is portrayed.

Brook’s omission paves the way for Ben Foakes to return to the side. It was always likely, I would say, given the likely pitch conditions England will face through the series. Foakes is one of the most impressive wicketkeepers in the world when at the stumps, and with the idea being mooted that they will play three spinners (plus Root) and one pace bowler in the first Test that will be a vital skill. At the same time, sources within the team were saying that it was possible Bairstow would have the gloves just a couple of weeks ago and it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for McCullum and Stokes to go with that approach again.

One entertaining aspect of Foakes’ return is the effusive praise he has received from his captain.

“[Ben Foakes] can not only do things other keepers can’t, but also make them look incredibly easy. […] He’s a very special talent behind there and having someone like that who can maybe take a 2%, 3% chance, that could be massive in the series.” – Ben Stokes

Yes. This is what we were saying eight months ago. If only Ben Stokes was Test captain then, he could have selected Foakes for the Ashes.

All of which brings us to what may become a significant controversy through the tour. Shoaib Bashir, a 20 year-old spinner who has played in just 6 first class matches and was named in the England squad for this series is not currently in India because his visa application has been delayed. The reason for this delay is simple: His parents were born in Pakistan. There is a separate visa application process for anyone with Pakistani parents where they have to provide extensive personal and financial details, and it typically takes at least 6 weeks (and often more) to be completed. Bashir’s selection was announced just over 6 weeks ago.

The singling out of a single England squad member due to their ethnicity on a tour has drawn some parallels with the Basil D’Oliveira affair in 1968. The attempt by the South African Apartheid government to prevent the ‘mixed-race’ D’Oliveira from entering the country as part of the England Test team led to the the tour being boycotted entirely. This is, for many reasons, unlikely to happen here.

Not unlike between players and selectors, the balance of power between nations has changed dramatically in the past two decades. India are now the financial superpower of cricket, in respect of both other boards and individual cricketers. The ECB revenues when India tours England are on a par with Ashes summers, which is one reason why this is a 5-Test series. They are also seeking funding for The Hundred from IPL team owners. If they upset the BCCI then they might only agree to a 2-Test tour in the next cycle, potentially costing the ECB over £100m. Players are presumably also mindful that anything they say in this situation could risk them being unofficially blacklisted by IPL teams and missing out on millions themselves.

Of course, these conflicts of interest are nothing new. In the 23 years England refused to tour Apartheid South Africa on moral grounds, a lot of English cricketers ignored the boycott primarily due to the large amounts of money on offer at the time. Graham Gooch, Geoffrey Boycott, Mike Gatting, Simon Hughes, John Emburey and Chris Broad amongst many others went there to play cricket. Ultimately, there is a fairly broad acceptance that most people (and organisations) have their price and Indian cricket is more than wealthy enough to pay it.

At the same time, English cricket has been rocked by multiple discrimination scandals in recent years which makes the ECB’s response in this matter more critical than ever. It is easy for the ECB to pay for photo shoots and T-shirts proclaiming their principles and moral foundations, or a few token payments to schemes intended to improve equity within the sport. The senior players can talk about how inclusive the dressing room culture is nowadays in the England camp. One of their teammates is being openly and blatantly discriminated against, and they appear (at least publicly) to be doing nothing. This is the impression that people will take away from this. The ECB says a lot of the right things, but does nothing when it is time to act.

Bashir’s absence will have a tangible effect on the England Test team and perhaps this series. He was the only full-time off-spinner included in the squad, with Leach, Ahmed and Hartley all spinning the ball the other way. He has triple the first team experience Rehan Ahmed had when he made his Test debut, and it’s certainly not unrealistic that Bashir would have been selected if available. In that sense, the Indian Government’s application of their stringent immigration laws has materially affected the outcome on the field.

Perhaps the result of this series should be marked by an asterisk to note that England were prevented from selecting their first choice team?

If you have any comments about the post, the match, or anything else please leave them below.

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