England lean towards three-spinner strategy in India series opener


England are considering playing Mark Wood as a lone fast bowler alongside three spinners in the first Test against India, which begins on Thursday in Hyderabad.

Both teams anticipate the pitch at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium will take spin throughout. And while England came into the tour expecting that any four-man attack, supplemented by Joe Root’s slow bowling, would be split evenly between seam and spin, they could veer more to the latter given what they have seen of the surface.

That would mean a Test debut for left-arm spinner Tom Hartley, who has 40 wickets at 36.57 from just 20 first-class appearances for Lancashire. Alongside him would be legspinner Rehan Ahmed, whose only Test appearance came last winter in Pakistan, where he took 5 for 48 in the second innings. That would make Jack Leach, Ben Stokes’ go-to spinner under his tenure, the de facto leader of the attack, having missed the Ashes last summer with a back stress fracture.

Shoaib Bashir, the other spinner in the squad, has yet to travel to India following a delay in granting his visa. He is understood to have returned to the UK from the UAE, where he was present for the pre-series training camp, in a bid to speed up the process. England hope he will be able to join them by the weekend.

The sole seam position is expected to go to Wood, whose extra pace and knack of reverse-swing give him a point of difference, ahead of James Anderson, Ollie Robinson and Gus Atkinson. Wood restated his class as a Test bowler last summer, coming into the Ashes for the final three matches to take 14 wickets as England overcame a 2-0 deficit to square the series 2-2.

Speaking to the travelling UK media on Tuesday, Stokes insisted he’d be happy to back “any” of England’s four seamers to lead the line, but acknowledged that Wood’s extreme pace was a tempting option to turn to.

“If we do choose to go with just the one seamer, you can’t deny what Woody possesses as a package,” Stokes said. “His express pace and he can get the ball reverse swinging as well … the skill that he has is obviously something that you want in your team. We’ve got out-and-out pace with Gus and Woody, then we’ve got the unbelievable skillset that Jimmy and Robbo possess. We’ve got all bases covered with whatever team we decide to go with.”

England’s previous dalliance with just one “full-time” quick came on the previous tour of India in the fourth Test at Ahmedabad. Anderson, however, was assisted on that occasion by Stokes, who claimed 4 for 89 in India’s only innings, but is unable to bowl at present as he continues his recovery from a knee operation undertaken at the end of November.

Wood, for his part, acknowledged his struggles for penetration during a tough ODI World Cup campaign at the start of the winter, in which he claimed six wickets at 58.16 in seven matches, but was enthused by the prospect of fulfilling his role with Test regulations and fields to back up his methods: “I think with my track record, being the one seamer there would be question marks over me, but if it does happen it’s another thing I can hopefully prove to people I can do,” he said.

Though there has been no official confirmation of the starting XI just yet, Stokes used his Tuesday briefing with the travelling written media to champion his spinners.

“I just think we have picked the spinners who we best feel are going to give us the best opportunity to win out here, regardless of experience,” the England captain said. “Sometimes experience can be a little over-rated and over-thought.

“The guys that we’ve got here are going to give us the best possible chance of winning and, regardless of the end result, we came out here with the best squad to give us the best chance to do that.”

On a possible debut for Hartley, Stokes suggested the Lancashire spinner’s height and pace of bowling meant he could potentially replicate some of the success enjoyed by India’s spinners in their home conditions.

“Tom is someone who’s obviously very tall,” he said. “He bowls at a very difficult pace to be able to handle out here and he’s someone who gets a lot of natural variation which, in India, is sometimes the hardest thing to face where you’ve got two of the same ball, ball after ball, and one turns square and the one could skid on and pick up pace. So it’s just trying to give ourselves the best chance of being able to exploit conditions that we have experienced from the Indian opposition out here as well.”

Stokes confirmed Ben Foakes will be the designated wicketkeeper after being dropped last summer. Jonny Bairstow, who kept throughout the Ashes ahead of Foakes, will slot in at No.5 after Harry Brook returned home for family reasons, with the hope Bairstow can replicate his 2022 summer form of 681 runs, including four centuries, at an average of 75.66 when playing just as a batter. Vice-captain Ollie Pope returns to the No.3 spot after dislocating his right shoulder while fielding during the second Ashes Test at Lord’s last July.

“There’s no doubt about the skill Ben Foakes possesses behind the stumps,” Stokes said. “He can not only do things other keepers can’t but also make them look incredibly easy. So having someone like that behind the sticks is useful, especially if we do find ourselves in conditions where the ball is spinning. He’s a very special talent behind there and having someone like that can maybe take a two per cent, three per cent chance that could be massive in the series. It’s good to have someone like that behind the stumps.

“I’ve already spoken to him (Bairstow) and told him Ben Foakes is going to keep and he should just worry about batting at No.5. We’ve seen what happened when he was given clarity over his role in my first summer as captain, we saw what we managed to get out of him, and I don’t want him to worry about anything other than batting at five, getting runs and what’s in front of him in the here and now.”

Speaking more broadly on England’s approach to selection over the coming weeks, Stokes reiterated the need for dexterity, both in terms of thinking and use of resources.

“I guess it’s about, when picking the team, what you think is going to give you the best chance of winning, and who is going to offer you more in certain conditions. Whatever bowling attack we go for, if it is going to be one seamer, who is that seamer going to be? Who is going to be the most capable of exploiting conditions and how we want that bowler to bowl? If it is two seamers, then who do we want those two together (to be)?

“India is one of those places where you’ve got to think about selection a lot more than anywhere else in the world, because of what you can get from the wicket.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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