Ben Stokes banks on spin as England hand Tom Hartley Test debut against India

By Sports Desk January 24, 2024

England have gone all in on spin for their first Test in India, handing Tom Hartley a debut alongside Jack Leach and Rehan Ahmed in a major selection gamble.

Clearly expecting more of the lavish turn that saw them blown away on their previous visit in 2021, the tourists have picked all three of their specialist slow bowlers in Hyderabad and will also utilise Joe Root’s off-breaks as an additional option.

With captain Ben Stokes unable to bowl after knee surgery, they have settled on Mark Wood as the solitary pace bowler, meaning record wicket-taker James Anderson sits out.

England are placing a lot of trust in Wood’s fitness, with their fastest bowler bullish about his fitness despite a history of injury problems.

England last named a trio of frontline spinners in their 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka in 2018, when Leach was the junior man to the more established pair of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, but Stokes was on hand then as an all-rounder.

They have not restricted themselves to just one seamer in recent memory, but their commitment to doing things differently in the ‘Bazball’ era remains unchecked.

Within the camp they do not see this as a rogue move, instead viewing it as a willingness to react to conditions.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s bold or brave, it’s just me and Baz (head coach Brendon McCullum) looking at the wicket and picking the XI that we think will give us the best chance,” Stokes said.

“You have always got to think that the ball is going to turn in India, but you don’t want to go in with any pre-conceived ideas. We have to adapt to whatever we have presented in front of us, with bat and ball.

“It’s just being true to yourself, making selections and decisions. It comes easier as I’ve done more of this… If I think the decision is best for the team, then it’s probably the right one.

“India are an absolute beast in their home conditions, there’s no doubt about that. But that presents us with an opportunity. This team loves opportunities. We take opportunity head on and we run towards it – we don’t back away from from anything.”

Hartley comes into the reckoning despite a slim red-ball record with Lancashire. He has played 82 T20s compared to just 20 first-class games but was identified several months ago for his height, lively speed through the air and skiddy trajectory.

All of those are factors England feel are better suited to a Test match in India than a regulation county championship pitch, but the 24-year-old remains an unknown quantity.

“It’s very exciting for Tom to make his Test debut,” said Stokes.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him out there and captaining him. He’s been very impressive in the build-up in Abu Dhabi. 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. In India, that is sometimes the hardest thing to face.”

Ahmed wins his second cap 13 months after becoming England’s youngest ever men’s Test cricketer in Karachi – an occasion that saw him claim a five-wicket haul in the second innings.

Despite going it alone, Wood has been told not to expect to carry a huge workload. Instead, he has been asked to use his express speed to make big contributions in brief cameos.

“What Woody brings with his high pace makes him a real impact bowler,” said Stokes.

“He’s a weapon we can use in short, sharp spells. We’ve already said that to him – bowl as fast as you can in short periods. There’s no worries about thinking about long spells. That’s how I envision using Woody before we’ve bowled a ball.”

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