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England make Bazball selections based on gut feel – and Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley vindicated it

Shoaib Bashir is congratulated by Ben Stokes (left) and Ben Foakes after taking the wicket of India's Rajat Patidar during a superb display from the spinner in the fourth Test/England make Bazball selections based on gut feel — and Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley vindicated it


Shoaib Bashir is congratulated by Ben Stokes (left) and Ben Foakes after taking the wicket of India's Rajat Patidar during a superb display from the spinner in the fourth Test/England make Bazball selections based on gut feel — and Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley vindicated it

Shoaib Bashir is congratulated by Ben Stokes (left) and Ben Foakes after taking the wicket of India’s Rajat Patidar – Ajit Solanki/AP

When England’s then director of cricket Andrew Strauss interviewed candidates to become national selector in 2018, the thrust of the questioning was based on one debate: do you believe selection in cricket is an art or a science?

The answer given by the successful candidate Ed Smith, who was rarely prone to under-thinking things, was that of course it was a combination of the two. Smith was keen on numbers, but later wrote “the challenge [of selection] is using data in tandem with the human dimension”. That seems a reasonable argument, but it only brought Smith mixed results in his three years in charge. Since then, and especially in the shorter formats, the dominant belief is increasingly that selection is scientific, and should be dominated by numbers.

Now, in a game drowning ever deeper in numbers, England are bucking the trend. This is a team captained on gut feel and cricket intelligence by Ben Stokes, and picked on gut feel and cricket intelligence by Stokes, Brendon McCullum and managing director Rob Key, with the support of selector Luke Wright.

So there was a fair degree of mirth when, in December, Key announced the squad for England’s tour of India. “You almost have to disregard what’s happened in county cricket,” when explaining why Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir had been selected ahead of the likes of Liam Dawson, who brought not only a superior first-class bowling average, but also excellent batting.

Tom Hartley celebrates with his England team-mates after dismissing India's Sarfaraz Khan in Ranchi/England make Bazball selections based on gut feel — and Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley vindicated it

Tom Hartley celebrates with his England team-mates after dismissing India’s Sarfaraz Khan in Ranchi, the spinner having justified his selection despite his relative inexperience – Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Hartley had 40 wickets in 20 first-class matches. Bashir, a virtually unknown 20-year-old who had knocked around county second teams before landing at Somerset, had 10 wickets in six matches at an eye-watering average of 67. Key put his selection down to “feel”.

Both men, and Rehan Ahmed, who has now gone home, have held their own on tour, especially when you consider their senior pro, Jack Leach, was ruled out with knee bruising so serious that it requires surgery this week. But on day two in Ranchi, Hartley and especially Bashir had the sort of days that the selectors must have dreamt of. On a helpful pitch, they provided threat, sharing six wickets, and control, conceding just 131 runs in 51 overs combined. Yes, the ball scooted low and turned sharply off cracks, but they were accurate enough to hit them.

Their selections may have come from left-field and lacked statistical grounding, but that does not mean they happened overnight.

Let’s take Hartley first. Members of England’s selection panel first took a liking to Hartley in the opening two seasons (2021 and 2022) of the Hundred, when he bowled in the powerplay for Manchester Originals. This panel was only just coming together then, but his swift, stump-to-stump style was noted. They felt his white-ball accuracy could translate to Test cricket in the subcontinent, and he was taken on a Lions tour of Sri Lanka last winter, and nurtured.

Bashir’s rise was sharper, and simpler. Stokes saw a clip on Twitter (now X) last summer of Bashir bowling to Sir Alastair Cook, liked the way the ball left the bowler’s hand, and flicked the footage into the WhatsApp group he has with Key and McCullum. Never mind that Bashir had only taken one for 128.

Leach, a Somerset team-mate and close friend of Stokes, had been excited about Bashir since he first rocked up at Somerset in late 2022. So without further questioning, Bashir was booked onto the Lions camp to Abu Dhabi in November for England to take a closer look. He was one of seven young spinners selected, but was almost certainly the most obscure.

Hartley and Ahmed were also among the seven selections, who worked with Graeme Swann, England’s best spinner of modern times. Wright coached on the camp, while Key and McCullum flew to the UAE for a closer look at the youngsters.

They found a pair of bowlers focusing on the battle with the batsman, rather than obsessing over the finer points of their own technique. They brought a craft and adaptability.

England also liked their characters, which is important in a set-up like Stokes’s that values time together and sees players used to their limits by his aggressive captaincy. While some young players can betray an intensity that can be unhelpful in the white heat of Test cricket in India, here were two easy-going, unflappable characters. That has served them well on this tour so far, whether in Bashir’s visa debacle or when under fire from six-hitting beast Yashasvi Jaiswal. Only on the series’ very first day did Hartley look remotely flustered. Of Bashir, Joe Root said “the way he bowls is a good insight into his character. He’s quite cheeky, great fun to be around”.

In his press conference announcing the squad, Key mentioned Bashir having “one of the higher release points in the game” so if there were two numbers that did come into calculations it was their height (both 6ft 4in or 1.93m) and the height from which they release the ball (both 2.35m), as England looked to ape the likes of Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin. But insiders say that was a bonus, not something every bowler in contention had to have. They thought the pace and guile they brought would serve them well in India

On Saturday they were proved right. The upshot, you sense, is that England will not be afraid of backing their gut next time they pick a squad.





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