Brendon McCullum calls for county chances for Bashir, Hartley after India Test impact

England

England head coach Brendon McCullum says it would be “slightly mad” if Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir are unable to build on a breakthrough tour of India in county cricket, and has suggested clubs should produce pitches to assist in the development of spinners across the country.

Hartley and Bashir have been two plus points in a series in which England competed well but still lost after India took an unassailable 3-1 lead on Monday, with victory in the fourth Test at Ranchi. Having arrived with minimal first-class experience, the left-arm spinner and off-spinner respectively have acquitted themselves brilliantly throughout, against opposition batters proficient at playing the turning ball.

Hartley has played all four Tests and is currently the leading wicket-taker in the series (20), having taken just 19 in the entirety of Lancashire’s Division One campaign last summer. Bashir, who only made his first-class debut in 2023 and arrived with 10 dismissals at an average of 67 for Somerset, has more than doubled his red-ball tally with 12 Test wickets. Both picked up five-wicket hauls on this trip.

Their selections were made to meet England’s specific requirements for success in India: tall spinners driving the ball into the pitch, aping the likes of R Ashwin and Axar Patel, who have had so much success in home conditions. After impressing with the Lions under men’s performance director Mo Bobat – who left the ECB last week to take up a post at Royal Challengers Bangalore – Hartley and Bashir were essentially fast-tracked into the England set-up, where they have since thrived.

The concern, however, is the pair may be stunted by a lack of playing time when they return to their counties, which England want to avoid given they are building towards a tour of Pakistan in October.

Lancashire, for instance, have signed Nathan Lyon for the season, the Australian veteran spinner who claimed his 500th Test wicket at Perth in December. Speaking after bowling England to victory in the first Test with 7 for 62, Hartley reflected it would be “fantastic” if they were able to play together but acknowledged Lyon would be the main man in the XI.

Bashir, meanwhile, has England team-mate Jack Leach to contend with at Somerset. Leach, who is having surgery on Thursday to ease the swelling in the damaged left knee that ruled him out of the India series after just one Test, will need Championship games to work himself back to full fitness for the home series against West Indies and Sri Lanka. Though Taunton pitches occasionally favour a multi-spinner approach, Bashir was the only one in the XI for his three appearances at home last summer. Leach presented Bashir with his maiden cap for the second Test in Visakhapatnam.

“It will be a slight frustration of ours if they weren’t given opportunities at county level,” McCullum said. “There’s a very real possibility that might be the case, but without wanting to dictate to counties because they have their own agendas as well, when you see performances like we have out of those two bowlers throughout the series, I think you’d be slightly mad if you didn’t give them more opportunities in county cricket.

“It would be nice to think they’d get plenty of opportunities so that they can improve at a quicker rate. Whether those opportunities are with counties or with England, I think we’ve just got to keep trying to get cricket into them. Whatever opportunity we can, we’ll try and give it to them because there’s two guys there more than good enough for international cricket. They’re also tough characters.

“What you can’t tell from the outside of a man’s body is the size of their heart – and we’ve seen both of them have big hearts and they’re up for international cricket. It doesn’t get any harder than it is right now, and they’ve both stood up and performed, so we’ve just to keep giving both of them chances.”

It was a sentiment echoed by the captain Ben Stokes in the immediate aftermath of England’s five-wicket defeat in the fourth Test, but acknowledged it was “very tough” to force counties to adhere to specific needs. McCullum suggested a workaround of sorts could be if teams produced surfaces that encourage turn more, a move that he believes would enhance the craft and provide more entertainment.

“As much as England’s about playing on good wickets and having the ball move off the seam, it should also be about playing on spinning wickets too,” he said. “If we lived in a world where we could have both Bash and Leachy able to operate in spinning conditions at Somerset, and Hartley and Lyon could bowl together at Lancashire, I think that would be a great viewing point for spectators.”

Hartley and Bashir are the latest examples of an England set-up not beholden to domestic form and numbers. Zak Crawley, for instance, was selected initially in 2019, despite scoring just three first-class centuries in 36 matches for Kent, before McCullum and Stokes backed him during a tough start under their tenure. Having top-scored in the Ashes, he is now leading England’s run charts in India with 328 at an average of 41.

Despite looking beyond the numbers, McCullum insisted England’s selection policies are not dismissive of county form. Indeed the scale and variety within English cricket has allowed them to be more precise with their picks.

“We certainly don’t pick in spite of county cricket, if that’s what you mean. We look at what we need skill-wise and we try and adjust it to what we think we’re going to require, and be brave enough to make decisions around it. We’re not going to get every decision right.

“From our point of view there’s a big team out looking around county cricket, and the guys who we think play in the way we want to play as a cricket team, and who fit the environment as well. And there’s a lot of eyes on those guys throughout. So it’s not certainly in spite of it. County cricket is a good system, it’s got a lot of cricketers opportunities, it’s got a volume of cricket as well and different conditions.

“Some guys who have got great county numbers might not find themselves necessarily in the England team. And some guys who don’t will find themselves in, but that’s not a reflection of that [county cricket]. It’s just about the skill set we want.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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