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India v England 2024

Ben Duckett commits to his positivity to join the ranks of the great Bazball innings

Ben Duckett celebrates reaching a century in India
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Duckett committed to his indiscriminately positive nature in Rajkot to produce one of the all-time great Bazball innings, writes Yas Rana.

The classical Test opener is the most English of positions. There is a clear lineage dating back 50 years where leading English openers overlap with another; from Cook to Strauss to Trescothick, to Stewart and Atherton, to Gooch, to Boycott. There are then nine years between Boycott’s first Test and Hutton’s last, before which you can link Hutton to Sutcliffe who in turn overlapped with Hobbs. And now you’re in 1908. Those nine openers, with a bit of a fudge, basically take you through 110 years of English Test history. Whatever the state of English cricket – and historically, England have rarely been a world-leading side – they have generally boasted at least one opening batter of repute.

It’s also the role that best suits the historically conservative English outlook on how the game should be played. Techniques spawned out of the MCC coaching manual with a sort of ascetic resistance to temptation outside off stump; perhaps more than any other role, you know what the stereotypical English Test opener plays like.

The Bazball era has transformed the careers of England’s current top three. Zak Crawley bats with a consistency that even Brendon McCullum didn’t envisage him capable of two years, Ollie Pope has developed into a leading figure in the dressing room and then there’s Ben Duckett, someone who was plying his trade as a No.3 in Division Two of the County Championship when Stokes and McCullum took over, and now averages over 50 as a Test opener. Of English openers with more than 1,000 Test runs, only Amiss, Hutton, Sutcliffe and Hobbs average more. Under Stokes’ leadership and since his 2022 recall, that average rises to 55 combined with a frightening strike rate of 91.

It’s an astonishing run accomplished with a method that is true to Duckett’s instincts but totally at odds with pretty much every previous occupant of the role, his opening partner not withstanding. Even Marcus Trescothick, the previously most attacking English opening batter of modern times, had a thoroughly pre-Bazball strike rate of 54.

Duckett’s success is generally not a win for the coaching manual fanboys. And his first 15 balls today were a small win for those naysaying purists who argue that you can’t get away with not leaving the ball as a Test opener. His aversion to voluntarily letting a ball go is well known and was fully on display, wafting at any hint of width with minimal success. It was a minor miracle he survived past the fifth over.

Off his 16th delivery, Duckett was offered a bit more width from Jasprit Bumrah and he guided the ball towards the deep third boundary for four. He was away and did not look back. Six more boundaries came from his next 11 balls as he tucked into Kuldeep Yadav and Mohammed Siraj.

He toyed with Kuldeep’s boundary riders, almost maneuvering them like a puppeteer, unleashing a different iteration of his sweep shot depending on the exact location of the leg-side fielders. He was similarly aggressive against Siraj and by the time his nemesis R Ashwin was introduced in the 12th over, Duckett had already compiled his first fifty on Indian soil and the total was up to 77. Twice in four innings this series Ashwin had dismissed Duckett while the England opener was defending. There were early signs of tentativeness again, treating Ashwin’s first over with a sort of respect he was yet to show the off-spinner’s teammates.

It was not until Duckett reached 69 that he unleashed a shot in anger against Ashwin, exorcising the ghosts of 2016 with one brutal swat through the leg-side for four. For the first time in the series Duckett treated Ashwin like he does the rest of the India attack.

It was in the next over that the fun really started. A slog sweep for six was followed by a pull for four and then a tickle down the leg side for three; 13 runs off three deliveries, through the 80s in the blink of an eye.

At the close of play, Duckett is 133 not out. It’s his third and most important Test hundred. The final analysis of his day makes extraordinary reading. This is not a player who targets perceived weak links in an attack; when he is on song everyone is in his firing line. The slowest strike rate Duckett had against an individual bowler is the 93 he is currently scoring at against Siraj.

This sort of landmark knock had been coming. For a player so indiscriminate in his treatment of deliveries outside off stump, he is quietly excellent at negotiating new-ball spells with only four single-figure scores against his name since his recall into the side. He is currently on a streak of seven knocks of 20 or more in a row, and that too against two of the best attacks in the world in Australia and India.

At the heart of his success is first and foremost an extraordinary set of skills for an English player, especially in terms of his options against spin. He is able to sweep spinners off their optimal lengths and force captains into hoisting out their catching fielders. As soon as spinners veer off their lengths, Duckett is excellent in using his stature to then pull or cut deliveries that really aren’t short at all. Dinesh Karthik on commentary remarked upon how Duckett must be the player the India attack dislike bowling to the most and it’s easy to see why.

Philosophically, there is also an almost perfect marriage between his own ideology and that of the England leadership. Interviewing Duckett twice in consecutive winters, in early 2022 and early 2023, in which time he went from outside of the England set-up to having successfully re-entered the fray, it was clear how watching Stokes, Bairstow and co. had influenced him in accepting his own game, and inspired him to return to his own naturally attacking fundamentals.

“Certainly this summer I went [back to] even more like how I used to play and that was purely because I was watching the Test boys,” said Duckett. “I didn’t change the way I was playing because I wanted to get a call-up. I think there was a period of a few years in red-ball cricket [where I was playing] how you ‘should’ play the game at the top of the order: ‘you need to leave the ball well, and bat for long periods of time’. Actually, I realised in my head and watching those guys that, you don’t have to play like that. Whenever I’ve scored runs, it’s not by doing that, it’s by being aggressive.

“And I think maybe Test cricket was portrayed in a way where you were told how you had to play it. I think that’s why it’s so interesting. I can think of numerous times in my career where I faced a 74 mile an hour bowler on a green seamer and I’ve just scratched around and got 20 off 50. If that was next summer, I’m probably slog sweeping them into the short side or whatever it may be. I think if you go out with the mindset of that, there’s no ceiling.

“I think England have showed how far you can take the game in white-ball cricket and just because the balls are a different colour doesn’t mean you can’t do that in red-ball. I think there’s certain times where you’re gonna have to respect the game and respect the conditions and respect good bowling, but it’s actually amazing what you can do when you put your mind to go out and be positive.”

Duckett has committed to that positivity and has the skills to back it up. As he foreshadowed, it is amazing what this player, who spent the meat of his 20s outside the England set-up, can do with that positivity. And at Rajkot, in his own unique way, he produced an innings that could go on to rival anything previously produced by an English opener on Indian soil.

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