IIt is a very modern start to a tour that will see England’s men face arguably the toughest challenge in world cricket – five Test matches in India – and gear up for warm-up games in local conditions for an 11-day training camp in Abu Dhabi.
While this wasn’t the first time – they did the same thing before last winter’s historic 3-0 win in Pakistan, while Australia and India have also skipped warm-ups abroad in recent times – given their size, it has the task ahead of us raised eyebrows. Steve Harmison, a flamboyant pundit for TalkSport, even said England deserved a 5-0 defeat because of it.
But there is a different opinion within the group, which Brendon McCullum’s assistant coach Jeetan Patel expressed before Thursday’s departure. Aside from time on their feet, he says, players simply don’t see the warm-up as beneficial (which is perhaps understandable when the pitches and opponents are determined by the hosts).
Instead, by renting the Sheikh Zayed Stadium and having sole accommodation, England will feel they have greater control over their preparation before taking to the nets in Hyderabad three days before the first Test, which begins on January 25 . Players, Patel says, simply want to kick or throw as many balls as possible before the main event.
“Guys want volume, be it batting or bowling; Time to work and explore their possibilities,” he says. “But it will be a fine line when it comes to training for this game. I can’t imagine India not producing Bunsen (spinning pitches), especially after Rohit’s (Sharma, their captain) recent comments. And rightly so, that’s the whole point of home advantage. That’s why we requested a mix of parking spaces in Abu Dhabi.
“We want to challenge the boys but also make sure they come to India with enough confidence to be free enough to play the way they want to play. to approach the game the way they have for the last two years. It’s also a long tour. We want the energy and excitement to be high when they take the first Test, rather than having only been in the country for two weeks and not being as mentally fresh as they could be.”
As with much of England’s resurgence under Ben Stokes and McCullum, it is a question of psychology. While Patel says the players will work hard, Abu Dhabi (and its golf courses) is also about fun; Rekindling the camaraderie of a group that has been apart for six months and now faces 17 Tests in 2024, after just eight last year.
“They train well individually, but together they go through the roof,” he says. “They’re best friends, but they push each other and get grumpy if they don’t get enough out of a session. Fostering these bonds means they see every day as an opportunity; They entered the final session of a game with the same enthusiasm as the first.
“We don’t want Test cricket to become torture. We don’t want them sitting in the pub in 20 years’ time thinking, ‘I didn’t really enjoy that.’ We want them to tell the next guy they’re going on the greatest journey ever with their mates.”
The next boys have now arrived, not least in a hugely inexperienced spin department that falls under Patel’s watch. In addition to Jack Leach, who has returned from a stress fracture in his lower back, there are Shoaib Bashir (20) and Tom Hartley (24), who have not yet played international matches, as well as Rehan Ahmed, who is only 19 years old.
Joe Root is now officially part of that group in terms of scheduling meetings and has been elevated to all-rounder status as Stokes is unlikely to bowl.
Ahmed is back a year after that remarkable seven-wicket Test against Pakistan in Karachi; A debut that not only hinted at the promise of the wrist spinner, but also showed that for all the “golf boy” energy of the setup, it is not a monoculture. Patel is proud of this as he expects Bashir, who has a similar background to Ahmed, to be successful.
“Of course there is talk about the overall game, but I know that the presence of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid in the England team over the years has really rounded out our experienced players,” says Patel. “Men have learned about another culture and are able to respect it by not being naive or too afraid to ask questions – that is ultimately what gets people out of the way.
“Some guys might not want to drink beer or play golf on days off, but that’s actually great. Mark Wood is a guy who doesn’t do any of those things. We don’t want the squad to be all the same. We all have different backgrounds and can tell different stories.”
Given the rawness of the spin attack, does the coaching staff need to demystify the prospect of bowling Rohit and Virat Kohli? “I don’t know if we will,” replies the former New Zealand off-spinner. “You can say things, but it’s hard not to see these guys at the top. Our job as coaches is to take the pressure off them and tell them that as long as you put in the effort and are ready to throw the next ball, it doesn’t matter.
“So Stokesy and the coaches will make it easier for them; We take over the tactics. With young men, you want them to think about only one thing. And if, say, Rehan hits Virat (lbw) or grabs Rohit and takes away his memory, aren’t we preparing him for life?
“These things are why I love my job; It’s great to be involved in Test cricket. I might like to do more work in white-ball cricket – I did a stint in the Hundred last year – and incorporate our attacking mentality. I think teams in T20 can no longer try to defend in the field. But I wouldn’t change my job at any price.”
It encapsulates the optimism that underpinned England under Stokes and McCullum; the kind that will be needed in abundance in the coming weeks as they swap their state-of-the-art desert preparations for the hothouse of India.