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Bin off Bazball and Bairstow? Decision time for England

A series that started with a heist in Hyderabad ended with a drubbing in Dharamsala.

The final Test, staged in the foothills of the Himalayas, seemed a trek too far for England as Ben Stokes’ tourists were trounced by in an innings inside three days and slumped to a 4-1 defeat.

England failed to lay a glove on India once they plummeted from 100-1 to 218 all out in their first innings, in contrast to the previous four games in which they were highly competitive.

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Hussain believes there is too much said and written about Bazball, instead of looking at individual performances in the England team.

Highly competitive – but ultimately lacking in the big moments, save for their comeback from a deficit of 190 runs on first innings in the opening Test as they secured one of their greatest overseas wins.

England had chances in the next three matches, they were sometimes on top, then faded as catches went down, wickets were gifted, Bazball malfunctioned, and India’s might on home soil told.

As the dust settles on a series of missed opportunities for England, we look at some of the decisions they must make before they are next in Test action against West Indies in July, live on Sky Sports.

Bin off Bazball?

Bazball – the word we just cannot leave alone. England dislike it and it is getting a bit boring writing it but it has come to define this team.

Used as a positive when they win – as they did in 10 of the first 11 Tests under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes after a painful run of one victory in 17 before that – and used as a stick to beat them with when they lose – as they have done in seven of their 12 games since that near flawless start in the hedonistic summer of 2022.

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England captain Ben Stokes insists the team have progressed during the tour of India, despite suffering a series defeat.

The term, in its most basic form, means taking the positive option, something McCullum, Stokes and their players have stressed does not always equate to belting sixes and fours but by putting the opposition under pressure.

Bazball is a mindset, not an order. It is up the batters at the crease to take responsibility, something Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope perhaps did not do in the Dharamsala defeat.

Duckett spooned to cover in the first innings and was bowled on the charge in the second, while Pope was limply stumped on the stroke of lunch first time around and caught on the sweep on the final day as his series petered out after a stunning 196 in Hyderabad.

Joe Root may also still be ruing his ill-timed reverse scoop in the third Test at Rajkot, which triggered a collapse of 8-95 when England had the game by the scruff of the neck and India spinner Ravichandran Ashwin was absent for personal reasons.

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Joe Root stands by the way that he batted during England’s defend in the third Test

Speaking on the Sky Sports Cricket Podcast, Michael Atherton said: “The team is in a far better state than it was when McCullum and Stokes took over and I would not like to see England go back to the timidity that we saw before, no retrenchment.

“But there have been times against Australia and India where they have not been smart enough, or good enough, or hard enough, to take advantage of winning positions.”

McCullum says there will be “refinement” to the model, which could be code for more judicious strokeplay, but also felt his team were too “timid” at times against India, so don’t expect Bazball to be dispensed with entirely.

Considering the success it has brought and the shot in the arm it has given English Test cricket, that is probably wise. It’s time for evolution, not revolution.

What England fans may want to hear less of, though, is the grating rhetoric, such as when Duckett replied “the more the better” when asked what his team could realistically chase in the fourth innings in Rajkot. Less waffle, more wins is what supporters will be after.

Brendon McCullum, Ben Stokes (Getty Images)
Image: Test coach Brendon McCullum says he and captain Ben Stokes will ensure England ‘come back bigger, stronger and more refined’ from their 4-1 defeat in India

Bairstow, Foakes, both or neither?

While Bazball is named after McCullum and been ingrained into the side by Stokes, it was Jonny Bairstow who lived it to the fullest two years ago, scoring four centuries in six Tests at a strike rate of 96.59, truly kicking off the new era with a 77-ball hundred during a post-tea onslaught against New Zealand at Trent Bridge.

The Yorkshireman suffered a horrific leg break later that summer and has not been able to scale those heights since, averaging 28.87 across his last nine Tests with two half-centuries. Bairstow reached double figures eight times out of 10 in India this winter but never made it past 39.

With Harry Brook, who missed the subcontinental tour for personal reasons, to return the middle order at some stage, Bairstow’s spot looks vulnerable, unless he takes back the wicketkeeping gloves from Ben Foakes, as he did ahead of last summer’s Ashes series.

Foakes was silky behind the stumps in India – when is he anything but? – yet was unable to truly impose himself with the bat, although he was often left operating with the tail such was the brittleness of England’s middle order as collapse followed collapse and 400 was only breached once.

England's Ben Foakes (Associated Press)
Image: Will England stick with Ben Foakes this summer?

Bairstow’s more bombastic batting – Foakes has readily admitted he is not what you would call Bazball – could tempt England into picking him as wicketkeeper ahead of the steadier Foakes – or they could say sayonara to them both and pump for someone in the next generation of glovemen.

Somerset’s James Rew, 20, perhaps heads that group, after averaging 57 in County Championship Division One in 2023 with five hundreds, but Surrey’s Jamie Smith, 23, is also an option His issue, though, may be that Foakes is likely to keep for his county.

What’s becoming clear is that there is probably not room for both Bairstow and Foakes in the same England side, not unless Baz and Ben have concerns over vice-captain Pope at No 3.

Pope made a divine intervention in Hyderabad with that sweep-laden century but has been febrile at the crease and short of runs either side of that, while he has been dismissed for less than 20 in more than half of his 77 innings in Test cricket.

England's Ollie Pope (Associated Press)
Image: Ollie Pope’s India series petered out after his 196 in Hyderabad

What to do with the bowlers?

As much as England’s Test cricket has changed over the last two years – so much of it for the better, let’s not forget – some things have remained the same, namely James Anderson taking wickets.

Test cricket’s most prolific seamer hit a new high on Saturday, becoming the first fast bowler to 700 scalps and shows no signs of slowing down, despite the fact he will turn 42 in July.

England must do succession planning for when Anderson is no longer around but that is hard when he keeps succeeding and you sense he will be a key cog in the attack against West Indies and Sri Lanka in the summer and possibly Pakistan and New Zealand next winter as well.

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Hussain says James Anderson reaching 700 Test wickets is a ‘phenomenal’ achievement and now the great Shane Warne’s tally of 708 wickets will be in his sights

We might not be able to say the same about Ollie Robinson with the seamer highly ineffectual in his sole outing in India as fitness and conditioning issues continue to hold back a bowler with an immense upside – height, accuracy, the ability to move the ball both ways.

With Stuart Broad’s retirement post-Ashes, there is an opening in the England bowling line-up on home soil and Robinson will feel he can seize it if he can get plenty of county cricket under his belt for Sussex between the season starting in April and the first Test against West Indies.

If he cannot, however, then you are probably looking at Matthew Potts, Josh Tongue and Gus Atkinson as the men to support Anderson, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes – the latter is likely to be involved in England taking into account his home Test bowling average of 21.88 – and hopefully Stokes, with the skipper eyeing full all-rounder status once again after knee surgery.

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Atherton and Hussain look at Stokes’ return to bowling and his batting struggles in India

England also have a decision to make over their No 1 spinner.

Jack Leach is favourite, and a Stokes favourite, but injuries continue to strike the likeable left-armer, with a stress fracture of the back seeing him miss the Ashes and a knee knock forcing him to return home from India after one Test.

Off-spinner Shoaib Bashir, 20, and Leach’s fellow left-armer Tom Hartley, 24, staked their claims in India, with Hartley taking a seven-for on debut and claiming 22 wickets in the series.

England's Shoaib Bashir (Associated Press)
Image: Will Shoaib Bashir become England’s No 1 spinner?

But Bashir, with his guile and change of pace, is seen as having the higher ceiling and Atherton thinks he could be the one – if he can play domestically that is, with Leach currently ahead of him in the pecking order at Somerset and a two-spinner attack unlikely early season. A loan move may beckon.

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