Bench and the bubble: cricket's pandemic tale
With an England B team taking out Pakistan in ODIs, West Indies overwhelming Australia 4-1 in T20Is—both at home—and a “second-string” India thumping hosts Sri Lanka by seven wickets in Sunday’s first one-dayer, this past week has drilled into us the truth that only teams with squad depth can survive in the pandemic era.
Increasing workload and a spiralling need for specific skills had already prompted the team think tank to pick and nurture format-based specialists, but the pandemic has expedited the need to keep on standby full-strength teams for every series in the near future. The T20 franchise leagues aside, all those Emerging team tournaments and ‘A’ tours that some nations had invested in over a long time may have finally found its purpose.
Not all teams have the same philosophy when it comes to creating a large pool of players. Like India, England, New Zealand and Australia retain an all-format core and dabble in specialists and youth according to the format. Pakistan and West Indies though have often picked different sets of players according to formats.
The pandemic though has required more standby players travelling with teams. It acted as a boon for India’s Test series win in Australia early this year, relying on T20-weaned Washington Sundar and T Natarajan, both originally picked as net bowlers. Some selections came about through chance too. England were lucky Ben Stokes was in injury rehab when their entire ODI first team had to go into quarantine. And the only reason a seasoned hand like Shikhar Dhawan is leading India in Sri Lanka is because he is no longer considered for Tests.
Teams with a vision have not left anything to chance. England instituted a rotational policy in 2020, just before the pandemic, which gives their top players enough rest throughout the year. They have experienced some gruelling seasons in the past, particularly in 2016 when they had to tour India twice—for the T20 World Cup in March-April where they lost in the final and for a five-Test series in November-December that they lost 0-4. With ICC scheduling a major event every year now, preserving players has become imperative. England have faced flak though with important players leaving the series midway (Jos Buttler left India after playing the first Test this year while Moeen Ali was rested after two Tests) but the process is paying dividends.
South Africa fast bowler Dale Steyn tweeted in February: “England’s rotation policy is slowly building a army of amazing cricketers. We may criticize it now, but with 8 ICC tournaments scheduled for the next 8 years (basically 1 a year, so I’m told) they really not gonna struggle for international experience when picking teams.”
Almost seamless has been the transition for India (fielding two teams now) and New Zealand (they made six changes to the second Test team in Edgbaston to beat England and win a series for the first time since 1999).
Batsmen almost always play the most matches across formats, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the top five busy cricketers in the last five years were Virat Kohli (181 matches), Babar Azam (163), Jonny Bairstow (154), Joe Root and Rohit Sharma (153 each). The challenge behind creating a good bench, thus, is ensuring it has enough genuine bowling options. Analysis of all Test teams shows New Zealand, India, Pakistan and England are ahead on that front.
The number of players fielded in the last five years ranges from 48 by New Zealand to 78 by West Indies, but a more accurate assessment of depth in each squad lies in the number of experienced players in each team. India top that criterion handsomely. If 75 matches for five years is set as a benchmark (it means playing only one format won’t cut it), India has 13 cricketers surpassing that mark, followed by New Zealand (11), Pakistan and England (10 each). At the other end of the spectrum are teams like South Africa (6 players) and West Indies (4), showing how thinly their resources are spread, in numbers and experience.
The real differentiator emerges while checking fast bowling options as that is where workload management becomes most crucial. Faring below par now are Pakistan (Hasan Ali-106 matches and Faheem Ashraf-82 matches), Sri Lanka (Angelo Mathews (85), Thisara Perera (84) and Suranga Lakmal-(81)), Bangladesh (Mustafizur Rahman (99)) and West Indies (Jason Holder (131)).
India are comfortably placed though. Among 13 who have played at least 75 international matches in the last five years, seven are bowlers or all-rounders who can bowl full quotas of overs—Jasprit Bumrah (114 matches in the last five years), Bhuvneshwar Kumar (104 matches), Hardik Pandya (104 matches), Yuzvendra Chahal (97 matches), Kuldeep Yadav (92 matches), Ravindra Jadeja (91 matches) and Mohammed Shami (79 matches). Among the fast bowlers, only Bumrah and Shami are automatic picks in Tests. But while Bumrah is an all-format bowler, Shami is sparingly used in shorter games (his last ODI or T20 was on the Australia tour in 2019-20). Kumar and Pandya almost exclusively play shorter formats these days.
That is a wealth of options when you consider Australia—forced to play Mitchell Starc (100 matches in the last five years) and Pat Cummins (99) almost everywhere—or South Africa, who only have Kagiso Rabada (115) and Andile Phehlukwayo (102) displaying that versatility.
New Zealand have been able to rotate Tim Southee (120 matches) Trent Boult (118) and Colin de Grandhomme (99) while England—James Anderson and Stuart Broad play as Test specialists apart from Stokes (126), Chris Woakes (86) and Mark Wood (78)—have the best, and the most well-rested, stock of versatile fast bowlers.
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