Cricket off the agenda as England head for Abu Dhabi break

Cricket off the agenda as England head for Abu Dhabi break

So, it’s back to the UAE England go, two Tests down and three to go.

A peculiar 10-day gap in this schedule allows the team to retreat from the relentlessness of a five-match India series. Players’ families will be meeting them in Abu Dhabi, offering some comforts of home and an opportunity to shed the last couple of weeks.

Not that there is much to shed, other than a virus that emerged on the morning of day four of the second Test in Visakhapatnam. A few more squad members were taken down on Tuesday, with a handful of others choosing to kick around in their rooms to preserve their clean bill of health ahead of family reunions.

Honours are even in the series, which feels about right. India’s victory on Monday came with encouragement for England that they can do something worthwhile, just as the tourists’ success in Hyderabad contained moments showcasing India’s dominance at home.

But cricket will not be on the agenda in Abu Dhabi this time. This is a far different “camp” to the one ahead of the tour. In fact, it is probably similar to the trip some observers thought they were taking at the start of January. They will return on February 12, touching down in Rajkot in the evening ahead of two training days leading into the third Test.

“There will not be a whole lot of training,” said Brendon McCullum of the mini-break. “The boys have worked incredibly hard in Abu Dhabi keeping in mind they all came here with a lot of cricket under their belts as well.

“We have had plenty of training days, two varying Test matches, and this is an opportunity to step away from the heat of the battle. I was talking to Rahul Dravid (India head coach) and he mentioned all his boys are shooting home as well. Home for us is a little way away, so we chose Abu Dhabi, and we are going to enjoy the families. Then when we get to Rajkot, we drop the shoulder and go hard.

“We sit 1-1 which is a fair reflection that we’re in the contest. We’ve played some really good cricket over the last two Test matches. Yes, we have come out on the wrong side of it here, but we got it across the line in the first one. The conviction about how we go about it is as strong as it ever has been. We have done some really good things over the last couple of weeks.”

Shutting off in this gap is one of the Test coach’s few non-negotiables. But even going into this prescribed unwinding, some necessary untangling of a couple of issues will be in the back of some minds.

One is a universal problem for anyone facing India – Jasprit Bumrah. Even 15 wickets at 10.16 does not do justice to some of the spells and dismissals within those spells he has already produced in just eight days of cricket. Bumrah has cycled through his bag of tricks to make batters look foolish, give Mark Wood a complex in the first Test about not matching his impact as the key fast bowler, and eclipse James Anderson’s class with a match-deciding 9 for 91 in the second.

The red zones as far as threats to England’s batters tend to be from around the 20 to 40-over mark in their innings when the ball starts reversing, and Bumrah really comes to the party. They got away with a double hit in the second innings at Hyderabad thanks to Ollie Pope but were stung badly in Vizag – the guts ripped out in their first go before timely blows in pursuit of 399 gave India a satisfying kill.

How do you combat Bumrah? Scientists could be given a lifetime and come up with little beyond standing at the other end. McCullum offered a shrugged, “Dunno”.

“We don’t really do theories. It is about making sure the guys are totally clear and present, confident and have conviction in their method. They are a lot better than I ever was and they will work it out how best to go about it.

“There are contrasting ways of going about it, and I have always said it is important to bounce off whoever you are batting with and the contrasting skills you possess. We will see where we get to. For now, we have to tip our cap to Jasprit and say that spell (in the first innings of the second Test) was as good as anything we have seen so far on this trip.

“It’s all condition-dependent. When the ball is swinging like that he becomes even more of a threat. He is a fantastic bowler in all forms of the game. He is unique with his release points and with how much swing he can generate in the air. No doubt he is very good, but we have come up against very good bowlers all through the last 18 months or so and found ways to counter them and that is what we have got to do in this one.”

One player who has had a few years trying to counter Bumrah has been Joe Root. Two out of Root’s four wickets have gone to a familiar foe, taking the overall count between the two to eight – three more than any other bowler has managed.

Are we in bunny territory? Great bowlers bowl at great batters, and these two have played each other 12 times. But Root’s average against his stuttering, thunderbolt-wielding nemesis is down to 30.62, which suggests the bowler’s had it most his own way.

On the subject of averages, Root’s overall figure has dipped back below 50, to 49.64. The result of four patchy innings, the worst of which came on Monday. England’s anchor in Bazball chases came and went for a chaotic 16 off 10 deliveries – caught at point hacking across the line – leaving him with just 52 runs from four innings. A far cry from the bumper 368 here in 2021.

The average since the start of last summer is 40, a figure bolstered by 118 not out in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston. The 12 innings since have featured just two half-centuries (albeit an 84 and 91), and a tough 50-over World Cup campaign. All of which means this un-Root-like confusion is a little more in the spotlight.

He has previously overcome a period of uncertainty in the middle of Ben Stokes’ first year as captain. The switch to new conditions seemingly means another recalibration is required. Particularly as his bowling is pulling him another way, with 69 overs bowled already, for five wickets, four of which came in a bunch in Hyderabad.

It’s worth noting Root was batting with a damaged right little finger last time out, and was also one of the XI who awoke that morning afflicted by the virus. Naturally, McCullum has pencilled him in for a bumper back three.

“He’s a world-class player and as good as any player England has ever seen. His method (in the final innings of the second Test), whilst people will look to the dismissal, look at the method of his option and he was trying to get the field back so he could milk them.

“It is the bravery you have to take at times, and sometimes you get out doing it, but that’s just the way the game rolls. There is no doubt from our point of view in that approach.

“There are three Tests left, still an opportunity to score a whole s***-ton of runs.”

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