England’s young spin trio find love on the toughest tour

Careful handling by their captain and management has given Hartley, Rehan and Bashir the chance to step up

The two central rooms on each floor of Chennai’s Hotel Leela Palace have a familiar feature, with a door connecting them internally.

England’s young spin trio find love on the toughest tour

When England stayed there during the 2021 tour of India, rooms around the ground floor were opened up and used as a base for the team doctor and physiotherapist. Both rooms had massage tables and all the necessary medical and recovery facilities. A few floors above, those rooms were occupied by dome bases and mason cranes.

Since the tour was taking place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hotel was in England’s biosecure bubble, and with that came strict protocols. One of them included not mixing in the room. But the side door allowed Bess, who was part of the main squad, and Crane, who was a member of the Covid reserves, to bypass this rule.

They will keep it open for hanging out and eating together. It helped that they were already friends, having come up through the county system in the same age group as the spinners – Bess an offie, Crane a leggie. And he made important use of that door for his friendship and craft during the first test of the series.

England won this test by 227 runs, but the performance of Bess was opposite. After taking 4 for 76 in India’s first innings, he was targeted in the second innings and could only manage 1 for 50 in eight overs. That night, along with most of his teammates, Bess was struggling to process his disciplinary experience. Crane, coming off his only Test cap in Australia three years earlier, sympathized with Bess and recognized the need for company. She knocked on the door, eventually Bess opened the door and the pair continued talking all night.

This is not a story with a happy ending. Bess was ruled out for the next two Tests before returning for the fourth Test in Ahmedabad, where he failed to take a wicket in an innings defeat. Neither he nor Crane have featured in the England squad since, with both attempting to recover from a domestic slump.

But it is a story that highlights the unforgiving nature of being a young English spinner on the tour. Especially in India, where you live under the brightest lights in the toughest conditions, county cricket is asked as an afterthought to the main event from summer to summer. Even without traveling under strict lockdown conditions, it can be a soul-crushing experience if it all goes wrong. Bess was by no means the first to do so.

“When we keep the selection process consistent and give really detailed reasons, Rehan understands why we went with that choice.”

Ben Stokes on choosing Shoaib Bashir over Rehan Ahmed in Ranchi
On the eve of England’s fourth Test on this tour of India, things are feeling very different. The three young spinners Rehan Ahmed (age 19), Shoaib Bashir (20) and Tom Hartley (24), who have just one cap between them in this series, remain in good spirits. With Jack Leach out due to injury, they have a lot to do, and a lot more to come as they look to keep the series alive in Ranchi for a potential winner-take-all decider in Dharamshala.

All three have been managed to a great extent. What were question marks over his readiness for such a high-profile assignment was never acknowledged by the management group. In the last three Test matches, Ben Stokes has given him the responsibility of leading the team to success, especially in Visakhapatnam when all three played together.

Each have been encouraged to focus on bowling their best wicket-taking deliveries as a legspinner, offie and left-arm orthodox respectively. While Stokes sets up his field, as he does for all his bowlers. The England captain has struck a unique balance of publicizing and coaxing his precocious turns, and he has responded by dedicating himself to the cause. They worry about what they do best, he will worry about everything else.

This week the professional nature of Stokes’ relationship with his spin group came to light. Shoaib Bashir, who made his debut in the second Test, was set to win on this pitch, which gave England hope that the pitch would be bigger. The high release points that earned them a place on the tour are now being called upon to level the series. This meant that Rehan would sit out the tour for the first time.

“Obviously it’s really disappointing to miss games,” Stokes said of the decision. “But then, when we kept the selection process as consistent as we do and really explained the detailed reasons behind it, Rehan was able to understand why we went with that choice.”

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It wasn’t personal. This was business. But without developing the former, the latter would have been difficult to bear. Especially for a child who spends most of his free time either with a ball in hand or shadow-batting.

A hugely talented teenager, who took five wickets on Test debut in Pakistan last winter, Rehan is a work in progress. Yet the way he has pressed on to be involved at key moments in the last three Tests belies the fact that he took only eight division two wickets at 66.12 in last season’s County Championship.

On the first day of the second Test, he spent most of the time on the field trying to attract Stokes’ attention. When Stokes finally turned to him to bowl the 60th over, he asked Rehan if he needed any instructions on what to do. “Please give me the ball,” came the reply. Rehan produced his best performances of the tour, taking 3 for 65, then 3 for 88, before his request to bat at number three in the fourth innings chase of 399 was granted Was.

Stokes often gets wide-eyed when praising Rehaan like a proud father. But he has treated her like an adult the entire time. This was evident when he bowled at the back end of the third innings of the third Test when Yashvi Jaiswal and Sarfaraz Khan were targeting the spinners. Another captain might have kept him away from the line of aggression given his youth, but Stokes knew Rehan well enough to recognize that he wanted heat.

There is understanding also. At the pre-tour camp in Abu Dhabi, Rehan asked team manager Wayne Bentley if he and Bashir – both practicing Muslims – could miss a team outing because it clashed with Friday prayers. Stokes sent him messages insisting that it was always OK, and that he should not be afraid to raise matters of faith with him. Following this, Rehaan has been allowed to skip the odd training session coinciding with the auspicious fasting days. When he did not have the correct visa to re-enter the country after the mid-series break in the UAE, he was stopped at Rajkot airport, with Stokes, Brendon McCullum and Bentley trying to keep the youngster’s spirits up. Had stayed with him for.

“You look at what Rehaan has had to go through with the visa situation and everything like that, I think he has handled this whole tour very well,” Stokes said in Thursday’s press conference. “He is a man [who appears] much older than his age.

In the three matches he has played, he has gone out and tried to do everything we asked of him, why he is in the team. I think no matter any other team, he is batting above number eight. And I think I’ve been really impressed with the way he’s moved the game with the ball.”

As far as first tours go, Bashir’s has been a complicated one. That he is here despite falling out of the Surrey age group is largely thanks to the passive Stokes having watched a clip of him bowling to Alastair Cook for Somerset. But despite a first-class average of 67 on the tour, his qualities have been appreciated by his team-mates.

His tour got off to a strong start with his debut in the second Test. There were fears that this would be completely jeopardized when Pakistani-origin Bashir was stopped from boarding the initial flight from the UAE to Hyderabad due to visa delays. After hanging around for a few days, he returned to the UK to get the final, necessary seal of approval on his paperwork.

By then, he had already been ruled out of the Tests, so the England management decided it would be best if he spent a few days at home for some familiar comfort. The players remained in touch with Bashir throughout and when he entered the dressing room early on the final day of the Test, he was given a warm welcome. Upon arriving in the country that morning, Stokes wondered whether he would be able to sleep for a while in a hotel. Bashir refused – if he had to leave the game then what was the point of going through so much trouble of coming here? He stayed put and saw England achieve a thrilling victory.

Arriving a week after everyone else could have set Bashir back in terms of selection and his association with the group. It was not like that either. Two days before the second Test, Zak Crawley used his media engagements to praise “a great kid” with “a lot of great things about him” and predicted that Bashir would make an impact on the tour. With that first cap under his belt, India captain Rohit Sharma has an opportunity to write himself into English cricket folklore in his eighth first-class appearance on Friday, getting the first of his four Test wickets.

It is Hartley who has shone brightest over the past month. Selected for his height and raw attributes, he came with the misfortune of being inexperienced, but with such a large sample size of 20 first-class games that even his modest 40 wickets at 36.57 could be used against him. While it is being compared to the rival team’s two highly rated left-arm spinners Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel.

When Jaiswal hit sixes off the first and fourth balls of Hartley, you feared the worst. But Stokes kept the faith despite knowing very little about him ahead of the Abu Dhabi training camp. Hartley conceded 34 runs from his first three overs but still held on long, with Stokes burning two reviews in the hope of “buying” his first wicket.

At the end of that opening day, Hartley left the dressing room stunned with 0 for 63 from nine overs. But everyone else in the team was insisting on pumping his tires and spending most of the time talking about the six he hit on R Ashwin earlier in the day.

Whether through shrewd captaincy or an act of compassion – or both – Hartley returned the next day with a run up from that length bowling that was slightly slower, completed his action with more precision, and managed to take his first two wickets. Two days later, his 7 for 62 made England proud and became the first English spinner since Jim Laker to take so many wickets on debut.

Hartley is currently England’s leading wicket-taker with 16, and, yes, some of those have come in donations from India’s batsmen. But he is full of confidence, which is clearly visible in his batting. It is worth noting that his 139 runs are the third highest for an Englishman taking 15 or more wickets in a series in India. Only Ian Botham and Fred Titmus are above him in that list.

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An hour after training on Thursday, Rehan, Bashir and Hartley were together on one of the practice strips at the main intersection of the JSCA International Stadium. Rehan stood as the permanent umpire as Bashir and Hartley practiced rotation repeatedly, varying their pace and points of attack, while assistant coach Jeetan Patel took over the responsibility.

There was a moment when Patel stepped back as the trio shared their thoughts on their collective performance and the learnings from just three Test matches. It was a wholesome scene, reflecting positivity and encouraging self-expression that has created an ideal environment for these young spinners to flourish.

It remains to be seen how this can be replicated beyond Stokes’ team and into the wider world of English cricket. These three lucky people may be the last to experience it. The duty of care to young cricketers goes hand in hand with taking them to levels they have never reached before. It is an amazing combination.

It’s worth noting the kind of support network that emerged from that 2021 journey. Bess, Crane, Matt Parkinson – who was also in the reserve team – and his twin brother Callum started a spinners WhatsApp group behind the tour, which is still active today. Whether good or bad, the series in India brings the spinners a little closer.

Sometimes, like in 2021, just coming out on the other side together is an accomplishment. In 2024, Rehan, Bashir, and Hartley are going home with at least a new bond between them. But who knows, they might end up bonding over history too.

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