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Rohit is the trump card for India, says former England spinner Panesar

Screenshot 2024 01 22 145929CHENNAI: Monty Panesar has singled out Rohit Sharma as the big-wicket for England ahead of the five-Test series beginning in Hyderabad in less than a week’s time.

“Over the last few years, Sharma has played a big role (with the bat) but we don’t talk about it often enough,” Pansesar, who played a big role in England’s series win in 2012, told this daily. “He sets it up for the other batters. If he goes after the (James) Andersons and the spinners, the ball can go soft pretty quickly.

The seam disappears and that makes it easier for the middle-order. If that consistently happens… if Sharma bats through the initial 20-30 overs in the series, I think India will win the series easily.”

The numbers back up Panesar’s assessment. The skipper is comfortably clear in terms of runs (677) scored in India in Tests since the beginning of 2021. His two 100s in that time period is also the best. Even if some of the pitches the hosts have played on may have been treacherous, Sharma’s mastery of the conditions has led to some big scores. Of course, England were on the receiving end when he made a thrill-a-minute 161 in the second Test at Chennai in 2021.

There is considerable interest in the upcoming series, not least because of England’s documented approach to red-ball cricket. Under Brendon McCullum (coach) and Ben Stokes (captain), they have been focusing on attacking, front-foot cricket from the off, irrespective of the conditions.

They have got the desired results so there is little reason to change. But it could all go pear shaped in less than a session. Panesar was cognizant of that. “We may have a proper contest if it comes off,” the left-armer said. “It could also easily crumble like we saw at the World Cup. If their game falls like a deck of cards, India will just say ‘we told you so, Bazball cannot happen in India.'”

While Panesar hoped for a good contest, he was left in no doubt when it was time to make his prediction. “I don’t think Bazball will win in India… India will win the series, just the margin will be dependent on England’s strategy.”

A part of their strategy, Panesar hoped, would be empowering Shoaib Bashir, a tall off-break bowler who has only played six first-class games. “I’m looking forward to seeing Bashir,” he said. “He’s tall, got big hands and long fingers, will be a very interesting bowler to watch. He can extract more bounce from that good length area, can be that x-factor spinner if he can hold his nerve.

“One wonders how Stokes skippers him. I think he will ask him to bowl full and tell him ‘I don’t mind you if go for runs but get me wickets… 5/100 in 16 overs is fine. The Indian batters are superstars but let’s dangle the carrot and play with their egos a bit.’ I think that will be the message that McCullum and Stokes will tell.”

If Bashir’s unknown quality may excite the tourists, they will hope Jack Leach, who has not played any cricket since a Test against Ireland, can hit the ground running.

While that could be a potential problem, Leach will have the automatic advantage of bowling to a line-up sans Rishabh Pant, who climbed into him during the 2021 series. Panesar said Leach and he were similar bowlers in some aspects. “He tries to build his spell, he knows he has 20-30 overs in the day so he will start slowly, build rhythm before going a bit more attacking. He has got a good stock delivery and bowls it well… there are some similarities (between Leach and me).

It really depends on his rhythm and he’s coming back from a long injury. I think one option is to get the fielders in once he gets his rhythm going but maybe Stokes gets the fielders all-out attacking straightaway. You know, four men around the bat and putting pressure straightaway.” In short, it promises to be a fascinating series.

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