England have plenty going right for them heading into the India Tests. They are on a five-match winning streak away from home, their captain is in the form of his life and they have at their disposal two veteran bowlers - two all-time greats, you could say - at the absolute peak of their powers.
Yet, 10 days prior to the first Test in Chepauk, talks of who will not be featuring in the first half of the series have overshadowed discourse about those who will actually be taking to the field.
Led by former cricketers, the ECB have been chastised for their decision to rest Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler - and a host of other names yet to be finalized - at different points in the India series. Opinions - be it from Nasser Hussain or Kevin Pietersen or a host of fans on Twitter - have varied, but the general consensus is that the ECB have inherently got it wrong by choosing to not field the strongest possible XI for each of the four Tests against India.
This criticism is neither unfair nor far-fetched. India, it has been well established, are the toughest country to tour in the entire world. Such is their dominance that they have not lost a single series at home for the past 8 years, and have lost all of one Test in their own backyard since Virat Kohli took over as skipper 5 years ago. So it is understandable why many find it a joke that the ECB have deemed it ‘okay’ to send out a seemingly not-full-strength side to the shores of India.
But while ECB’s ‘rest and rotate’ policy has understandably come under fire, particularly given it has deprived the country of the luxury to field a full-strength side against the toughest opponent in the world, it is, all things considered, a prudent move which, apart from being the need of the hour, could very well enable the team to reap long-term rewards in what is set to be the most hectic calendar year of cricket in the country’s history.
A pandemic-struck 2020 meant that the two Tests England were scheduled to play against Sri Lanka last year had to be moved to early 2021, and the rescheduling, well, pretty much screwed their year. Not only did the Sri Lanka series consume the entirety of January which, otherwise, would have been offseason for the players, it further congested an already-packed schedule. The addition of two Sri Lanka Tests took the total tally of Tests the country will play in 2021 to a mind-boggling 17. To put this number in perspective, New Zealand played 15 Tests across both 2019 and 2020.
The problem for England, however, is not just that they play a ridiculous number of Tests; they are also scheduled to play a ridiculous number of ODIs and T20Is, on top of which their entire first XI is also expected to feature in the IPL. In any other year the ECB would have prioritized Test cricket, discarded the limited-over-internationals and barred their players from playing the IPL without a second thought, but a World T20 happening in about 9 months time means that they need to give equal, if not more, precedence to white-ball cricket. The tournament taking place in India also means that any practice their players can get ahead of the tournament in the sub-continent will be pretty much invaluable.
Perhaps for a side with more single-format specialists the schedule would have been viable, but where it gets tricky for England is that barring the spinners, the openers and Anderson and Broad, pretty much their entire Test side is composed of multi-format players, most of whom feature in all three formats. This, in turn, means that it simply won’t be feasible to field the strongest possible XI for every series throughout the course of the year, for there’s an inherent need to rest players to prevent burnout and injuries.
Putting all this behind, though, let us now get to the spicy part: the team selection for the India Tests. The trio of Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Sam Curran have been rested at different points in the India Tests - Bairstow and Curran the first two Tests and Buttler the last three - and while the selectors have only announced the squad for the first two games, more big names are expected to miss the final two matches. That it’s preposterous and disrespectful to not be fielding your strongest XI against India in India, and that England would be better off resting their players against ‘weaker teams’ has been the overarching view. Kevin Pietersen suggested for England to run the players to the ground till the IPL and then give them a break ‘afterwards’. Among other things, one of his suggestions were to rest players in ‘smaller series’ after the IPL.
But here’s the deal: England have no insignificant or ‘small’ series lined-up. The country’s home summer kicks-off immediately after the IPL - a two-Test series versus New Zealand - after which they play a five-Test series against India. This will be preceded and succeeded by limited-over games versus Pakistan and Sri Lanka, after which they will head to India for the T20 World Cup. At the end of all this comes the Ashes, which is expected to kick-off some-time in December.
By adhering to the ‘rest and rotate’ policy, what the ECB are aiming is keeping all players fresh, fit and firing all throughout the year. To enable this, compromises have to be made, and, unfortunately, one such has come in the form of a chunk of very-important players missing the India series. The situation is, of course, far from ideal, but in the board’s defence, it makes all the sense in the world to rest Buttler, Bairstow and perhaps more players as the series progresses.
To understand why, first let us evaluate the merit in resting Buttler and Bairstow (Curran anyway is a fringe player in Tests, particularly in Asia). Both men are considered, behind Joe Root, the two best players of spin in the country, and both the batters, across different points in the Sri Lanka series, proved why they carry along with them that reputation. In the case of them having not been rested for the India series, their schedule for 2021 would have looked something like this: quarantine and two Tests versus Sri Lanka, quarantine and four Tests, five T20Is and 3 ODIs versus India and quarantine and two months of IPL. In short, their workload would have been inhumane.
By resting them for a chunk of the Tests versus India, however, what the ECB have ensured is keep both Buttler and Bairstow fresh for the limited-overs series where their importance dwarfs what they bring to the Test side. Both Buttler and Bairstow can claim to be the two greatest white-ball cricketers in the country’s history and it goes unsaid that England’s chances in the WT20 will directly depend on how the two fare.
The duo being handed a break now will render them available for 5 T20Is, 3 ODIs and the IPL that will be played in two months’ time, and with a World T20 happening in India in under 10 months’ time, such match practice in subcontinent conditions would do a world of good for both players and, in turn, the team. What this rest also does is ensure that at least one of these two men will be around - most likely Buttler, given Bairstow is not in England’s plan in home Tests - when some of the other cricketers might need rest during the home season.
There will be two counter-arguments to this: 1) “Why not rest these players in the home Tests and not away in India” and 2) “How about just fielding a second-string side in the ODI series?”.
Why England would be better off resting players away in India is simple: as things stand, they are all but virtually out of contention to make the final of the first WTC cycle. This, of course, is no excuse to field a weakened side, for it sends a wrong message, but by choosing to rest their players here, England are making the most of their schedule.
They will not have the same luxury come June in the home season, for, by then, the second WTC cycle would have kicked-off. In layman’s terms, a loss against India in two weeks’ time will be insignificant for England, while a loss in two months’ time against India at home would punch holes in their quest to make the final of the 2021/22 WTC. Thus, taking into consideration the bigger picture, it is pragmatic on ECB’s part to rest their players in a series which, for England, is low stakes.
Why England cannot afford to rest their players in the ODIs, or can’t afford to take the 50-over games lightly, is because of their dire situation in the ODI Super League. Having already lost 3 of their first 6 matches, a heavy defeat to India would put the Three Lions in an extremely precarious position, particularly with the chances of their cancelled series against South Africa getting rescheduled looking grim. A 2-1 or 3-0 loss to India in March might not quite put their chances of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup in jeopardy, but it would definitely hamper future rotation plans, for then the board would be forced to field their full-strength XI in all future 50-over games to seal World Cup qualification. By resting Buttler, Bairstow and Curran in India, and having already rested Stokes and Archer for the Sri Lanka series, England have ensured that a full-strength side would take to the field come the ODIs.
Unsurprisingly, Ashes comparisons have been made by both former cricketers and the English media. “Would England have rested players had they played at the Gabba in two weeks’ time?,” asked a few, while certain others pointed out how England should consider India - and not Australia - as the final frontier. But it is all too convenient that these talks have emerged out of nowhere, a week after India’s unlikely triumph Down Under.
For centuries, the Ashes has remained the ultimate prize for any English side and cricketer - how England fare in Australia has always remained the yardstick by which the team’s greatness has been measured. It remained the yardstick as recent as five months ago when the same media, journalists and ex-cricketers admonished Root for benching Mark Wood for the home season, sticking to Woakes, Anderson and Broad and not ‘building an attack that will win games in Australia’. Suddenly calling for the side to treat India as the final frontier is a knee-jerk reaction influenced by recency bias; an opinion that reeks of hypocrisy.
Ultimately, though, this ‘rest and rotate’ policy implemented by the ECB extends beyond just keeping the players brazed for the Ashes. It is, rather, their own way of adapting to the new normal to keep the players not just fit and fresh, but also sane. Myriad cricketers, over the past few months, have spoken of bubble fatigue taking a toll on their mental health, and thus by giving players adequate rest and family time, what the ECB are ensuring is providing them the ideal environment to excel, by ensuring everyone’s in the right headspace to perform to the best of their abilities.
A team like India, for instance, recently came to know about the physical effects of bubble life, but, by continuing to pick the same players who have been inside bubbles since August, have shown that they really do not still understand the importance of keeping the players mentally fresh. The ECB, in this way, have been prudent in figuring out a balanced method to give adequate breaks to players while ensuring that they still put out a world-class team competent enough to go head-to-head with the best in the world.
This argument whether England were justified in sending home their best players will continue to extend till the start of the country’s home season, and will worsen should they get wiped 4-0 by India, but, all things considered, the ECB have hit the nail on the head with their stance. For, sometimes, short-term sacrifices need to be made to reap long-term rewards.