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Feature

England's young spin trio feel the love on toughest tour

Careful handling by their captain and management has given Hartley, Rehan and Bashir the chance to thrive

Rehan Ahmed umpires for Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir at England training  •  Associated Press

Rehan Ahmed umpires for Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir at England training  •  Associated Press

The two central rooms on each floor of the Hotel Leela Palace in Chennai have a familiar quirk, with a door connecting them internally.
When England stayed there during the 2021 tour of India, the ground floor adjoining rooms were opened up and used as a base for the team doctor and physiotherapist. Both rooms contained massage tables and all the requisite medical and recovery bits. A few storeys up, those rooms were occupied by Dom Bess and Mason Crane.
With the tour taking place during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the hotel was England's biosecure bubble, and with that came strict protocols. One of those included not mixing in rooms. But the adjoining door allowed Bess, who was part of the main squad, and Crane, a member of the Covid reserves, to circumvent this rule.
They would keep it open to hang out and eat dinner together. It helped they were already mates, having come through the county system in the same age group as spinners - Bess an offie, Crane a leggie. And it was during the first Test of the series that they made important use of that door, for their friendship and craft.
England won the Test by 227 runs, but Bess had contrasting performances. After taking 4 for 76 in India's first innings, he was then targeted in the second, managing 1 for 50 from just eight overs. That night, with most of his team-mates ecstatic, Bess was struggling to process his chastening experience. Crane, from his one-and-only Test cap in Australia three years earlier, empathised with Bess and recognised the need for company. He knocked on the door, Bess eventually opened it and the pair talked things through for the rest of the night.
It is not a story with a happy ending. Bess was dropped for the next two Tests before returning for the fourth in Ahmedabad where he went wicketless in an innings defeat. Neither he nor Crane have been involved in an England squad since, and both are in the midst of emerging from respective domestic slumps.
But it is a story that highlights the unforgiving nature of being a young English spinner on tour. Especially in India, where you are thrust under the brightest lights in the most unforgiving circumstances, asked to be the main event having existed summer to summer in county cricket as an afterthought. Even without touring under stringent lockdown conditions exacerbating it all, it can be, at its worst, a soul-crushing experience. Bess was by no means the first to go through that.
"When we keep the selection process consistent and actually give pretty in-detail reasons, it was understandable to Rehan as to why we've gone with that option"
Ben Stokes on picking Shoaib Bashir above Rehan Ahmed in Ranchi
On the eve of England's fourth Test on this tour of India, things feel very different. Three young spinners in Rehan Ahmed (aged 19), Shoaib Bashir (20) and Tom Hartley (24), with just one cap between them coming into this series, remain in good spirits. With Jack Leach ruled out with injury, they have had to scrap, and more is on the cards as they look to keep the series alive in Ranchi for a potential winner-takes-all decider in Dharamsala.
The three have been considerately managed. What question marks there were over their readiness for such a high-profile assignment were never acknowledged by the management group. Across the last three Tests, Ben Stokes has given them responsibility to bring the team success, notably in Visakhapatnam when all three played together.
Each has been encouraged to focus on bowling their best wicket-taking deliveries as legspinner, offie and left-arm orthodox, respectively. All while Stokes sorts their fields, as he does for all his bowlers. The England captain has struck a unique balance of hyping and coddling his precocious twirlers, and they have responded by giving all of themselves to the cause. They worry about what they do best, he'll worry about everything else.
It was this week that the professional nature of Stokes' relationship with his spin group came to the fore. Shoaib Bashir, having debuted in the second Test, was drafted in for this must-win encounter on a pitch England expect will turn big. The high release point that earned him a place on the tour is now being called upon to square the series. It meant Rehan would sit out for the first time on tour.
"Obviously missing out on games is really disappointing," Stokes said of the decision. "But again, when we keep the selection process consistent as we do and actually give pretty in-detail reasons as to why, it was understandable to Rehan as to why we've gone with that option."
It was not personal. It was business. But without cultivating the former, the latter would have been harder to bear. Particularly for a kid who spends most of his free time either with a ball in his hand or shadow-batting.
A supremely gifted teenager who bagged a five-wicket haul on Test debut in Pakistan last winter, Rehan remains a work in progress. Yet the way in which he has pushed to be involved at critical junctures across the previous three Tests belies the fact he took just eight Division Two wickets at 66.12 in last season's County Championship.
On day one of the second Test, he spent most of the time in the field trying to get Stokes' attention. When Stokes eventually turned to him to bowl the 60th over, he asked Rehan if he needed any instructions on what to do. "Please give me the ball," came the reply. Rehan would go on to put in his best performance of the tour, taking 3 for 65, then 3 for 88, before his request to bat at three in the fourth-innings chase of 399 was granted.
Stokes often gets wide-eyed when lauding Rehan, like a proud dad. But he has treated him like an adult throughout. That was evident when giving him a spell at the back end of the third innings of the third Test when Yashavi Jaiswal and Sarfaraz Khan were gunning for the spinners. Another captain might have kept him out of the line of fire given his youth, but Stokes knew Rehan well enough to recognise he wanted the heat.
There is also understanding. On the pre-tour camp in Abu Dhabi, Rehan asked team manager Wayne Bentley if he and Bashir - both practising Muslims - could miss a squad outing because it clashed with Friday prayers. Stokes messaged him insisting it was always fine, and that he should not be afraid to broach matters of faith with him. Subsequently, Rehan has been allowed to skip the odd training session when they coincide with auspicious fasting days. When he was held at Rajkot airport because he did not have the correct Visa to re-enter the country following the mid-series break in the UAE, Stokes, Brendon McCullum and Bentley stayed with the youngster to keep his spirits up.
"You look at what Rehan's had to go through with the visa situation and everything like that, I think he's handled this whole tour very, very well," said Stokes in his Thursday press conference. "He's someone [who appears] a lot older than what he is.
"In the three games he's played, he's gone out and tried everything that we've asked of him, as to why he's been in the team. I think any other team, he's batting higher than number eight. And I think the way in which he has taken the game on with the ball is something I've been very, very impressed with."
As far as first tours go, Bashir's has been complex. That he is even here after falling out of the Surrey age groups is thanks largely to an idle Stokes seeing a clip of him bowling at Alastair Cook for Somerset. But despite a first-class average of 67 coming into the tour, his qualities have been lauded by his team-mates throughout.
His tour started, in earnest, with his debut in the second Test. There was a fear it was in jeopardy outright when visa delays prevented Bashir - of Pakistan heritage - from boarding the initial flight from the UAE to Hyderabad. After sticking around for a few days, he returned to the UK to get the final, necessary stamp on his paperwork.
By then, he was already ruled out of the first Test, so the England management decided it would be best if he spent a couple of days at home for some familiar comforts. Players kept in touch with Bashir throughout, and he was given a rousing reception when he entered the dressing room early on the final day of the Test. Having arrived in the country that morning, Stokes wondered if he could do with getting some sleep at the hotel. Bashir refused - what was the point of all the hassle of getting here if he was going to leave the game? He stuck around and watched England go on to claim a thrilling victory.
Arriving a week after everyone else could have set Bashir back in terms of selection and his connection to the group. Neither was the case. Two days out from the second Test, Zak Crawley used his media engagement to praise "a great kid" with "a lot about him" and predicted Bashir would make an impact on this tour. With that maiden cap under his belt, bagging India captain Rohit Sharma as the first of his four Test wickets, Friday is an opportunity to write himself into English cricket folklore in only his eighth first-class appearance.
It is Hartley who has shone brightest the last month. Picked for his height and raw attributes, he arrived with the misfortune of being characterised as inexperienced yet with a large enough sample size of 20 first-class games that his modest 40 wickets at 36.57 could also be used against him. All while being compared to two high-class left-arm spinners on the opposition in Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel.
When Hartley's first ball - and fourth - on debut was struck for six by Jaiswal, you feared the worst. But Stokes, despite knowing little about him before the Abu Dhabi training camp, kept faith. Hartley's first three overs went for 34 but he still stayed on for a lengthy spell, with Stokes also burning two reviews in the hope of "buying" him a maiden wicket.
At the end of that opening day, Hartley sat shellshocked in the dressing room nursing figures of 0 for 63 from nine overs. But all the rest of the team insisted on pumping his tyres, spending most of the time talking up the six he hit off R Ashwin earlier in the day.
Whether astute captaincy or an act of compassion - or both - Hartley returned the next day from that longer bowl with a run up that was a little slower, getting through his action with more precision, and ended up picking up his first couple of wickets. Two days later, his 7 for 62 took England to glory, becoming the first English spinner since Jim Laker to take as many on debut.
Hartley is currently England's leading wicket-taker with 16, and, yes, some of them have been donations from India batters. But he is brimming with confidence, something that is evident in his batting. It's worth noting his 139 runs are the third most for an Englishman with 15 or more wickets in a series in India. Only Ian Botham and Fred Titmus sit above him on that list.
An hour into training on Thursday, Rehan, Bashir and Hartley were together on one of the practice strips on the main square of the JSCA International Stadium. Rehan stood as the standing umpire as Bashir and Hartley practised going around, over and through, varying their pace and points of attack, while assistant coach Jeetan Patel took the mitt.
There was a moment when Patel took a back seat as the three threw around ideas amongst themselves based on their collective exposure and learnings from just three Tests. It was a nourishing sight, reflective of the positivity and encouraged self-expression that has created an environment perfect for these young spinners to thrive.
Quite how that can be replicated beyond Stokes' team and into the wider world of English cricket remains to be seen. It may be that these lucky three will be the last to experience it. The duty of care to young cricketers has run parallel with pushing them to levels they have never previously reached. It is one hell of a combination.
It is worth noting a support network of sorts emanated from that 2021 trip. Bess, Crane, Matt Parkinson - who was also in the reserve squad - and his twin brother Callum started a spinners WhatsApp group off the back of the tour, which remains active to this day. Whether good or bad, series in India bring spinners a little closer together.
Sometimes, like 2021, it's an achievement just to come out the other side together in one piece. In 2024, Rehan, Bashir and Hartley are at least going home with a new bond formed between them. But who knows, they may even end up bound by history.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo