Friday, August 26, 2011


A four match Test series of England v India means 20 solid days of cricket to watch, with every ball recorded in High Definition. Hence, with only 24 hours in a day, no Blog Posts over the last month – it’s as simple as that.

Before it all started, it was being hyped as a really juicy contest between the two best Test sides in the world, and everyone was looking forward to a massive contest between two almost equally gifted sides.


Oh, how wrong that all turned out to be. It’s all over now, and England didn’t just beat India, they utterly demolished them in a way no-one expected. Cricket is the sport where the conditions affect the way the game is played more than any other. The heat (or the cold), the humidity, the weather, the pitch, the outfield, the way the pitch changes over the 5 days of the match, the light, all make a massive impact. Playing on a damp, cloudy day at Headingley, and a blazingly hot day in the Sub Continent creates two different games, and learning how to come to terms with both sets of conditions is the mark of a top class player.

India playing at home is one thing, but India (or indeed any of the Indian Sub Continent teams) playing in England is a quite different proposition, and this factor did not seem to be given the importance it deserved. In times past India have come here and played brilliantly. Their batsmen are always among the best in the World, because batting in India is almost the most important part of their game. They usually bat a long way down the order, and patience, concentration and dedication are their long suits. They have often lacked real pace in their bowling, but their spinners have always been a real handful. Fielding has never been one of their strengths, and it is difficult to name a world class Indian fielder however far back one looks. They work on the basis that the batsmen will always score enough runs for their limited bowling and fielding not to be a problem, which, up until now is something they have usually done.

Only a couple of months ago, they have just beaten every other team in the world in the 50 Over ODI World Cup, and they came to England as No. 1 in the ICC World Test Rankings. India is the hub of world cricket, with more people playing and watching than anywhere else. Their top players are feted as Gods in a way we don’t even understand over here. Cricket there, is as close to a religion as a sport can get.

Just read down their batting order, and the spectre of immediately facing a score of 600 for 5 instantly swims into your mind. Gambhir, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Dhoni, Yuvraj – the list just goes on and on. Harbhajan, their off spinner has taken more wickets than any other bowler playing Test Cricket today, and Zaheer Khan is simply a magician with medium paced swing bowling. And Harbhajan, the bowler, batting at No. 8 has scored back to back centuries in the last couple of years.

So, what could possibly go wrong?

Good question, because in the end the answer for India was - Almost Everything. They were woefully unprepared, playing just one match to acclimatise themselves to the English conditions. Apart from one shining example, the incomparable Rahul Dravid, their batsmen were a disgrace. Their fielding was uniformly dreadful. Their captaincy was uninspired, and often simply wrong. Their bowling was, at best, innocuous, and their overall attitude made you wonder if most of them even wanted to be here at all.

It was so embarrassing that it makes you wonder, or at least it makes me wonder, if the Indians still have an appetite for Test Cricket. Nowhere in the world has the Twenty Over game taken such a hold as it has in India. Watch a Test Match in India, and the grounds are almost deserted, but watch the Indian Premier League 20 Over games, and there are grounds with capacities nearing 100,000, and they are all heaving with spectators.

The really great players in the Indian team – Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and possibly Sehwag are nearer to the end of their careers than the beginning, and the evidence of this tour is that the younger team members either have no appetite for the 5 day game, or, because of the emphasis on the short game, simply do not have the skills to play it. This could easily result in them turning against it. There’s nothing like failure to turn your face against the difficult version if, with a more limited skill set, you can get success, adulation and a very decent living playing the One Day Knockabout version.

People like Gambhir, Yuvraj, Raina and possibly even Dhoni need a lot of strength of character to go home to India set on improving their game to remedy their deficiencies, rather than putting it in the “too difficult” box. In truth, I fear that this drubbing could all too easily lead to a further slide down the slope of the disappearance of Test Cricket in the Indian Sub Continent.

If indeed they actually want to improve the situation, the Indian authorities, who are currently in a classical state of complete denial about it all, need to grasp this nettle firmly, and do so in the knowledge that grasping it is going to hurt. The Indian cricket temperament is not one of hard work and toil to perfect all aspects of their game. For many years now, they have relied on an abundance of a group of individual natural talents to shine through. Being good in one facet of the game used to get you through, but England have shown just how much that approach has been discredited. Every England player has at least two strings to their bow, and a few (Broad, Bresnan and Trott) have three.

Contrast the Indians. Look at Tendulkar, an utterly brilliant batsman, who is no more than a moderately good fielder. Look at Sehwag and Zaheer Khan, neither of whom who should have been anywhere near the team given their fitness levels, with fielding which is pretty mediocre. Look at the bowling attack when Zaheer Khan collapses after one match. There are no replacements available or even thought about, and this from the nation with the greatest number of players anywhere on the planet.

In England, when Tremlett picks up an injury, what happens. We get Bresnan as a replacement, and he is so good that Tremlett is now going to have a big job getting back into the side. Lose Jonathan Trott, a brilliant No.3, to injury and what happens? Ian Bell steps up to take his place and plays some of the most brilliant cricket you’ll ever see, scoring a phenomenal number of runs in the process. Now the selectors have a problem about what happens when Trott returns.

All of the above concentrates on India’s failings and makes no allowance for the class of the England team at the moment. Just as much as India’s failure, you need to applaud England’s ability. They can bat long and quickly. There have been 3 Double Hundreds (as well as a 175 and a 153) in six England Innings. They bowl relentlessly with no let up. You see off Anderson and Broad, and on comes Bresnan and Swann, building pressure continuously. When did that last happen in any series anywhere? The Australian 1990 side and the 1980 West Indians come to mind. The England players dominated the game for almost every session played, and simply didn’t allow India a look in. At the top level, that is what wins games.

None of this happens by accident, and it all started when England were humiliated in the Caribbean by being bowled out for 51. That was the turning point, and perhaps this 4-0 whitewash will do the same for India.

There’s some serious planning behind all this change in the England camp. A total commitment to all aspects of the game - batting, bowling and fielding. Everyone in the squad has to buy into the ethos. Samit Patel, quite possibly the best all-rounder in the country doesn’t get picked because he’s not prepared to go down the fitness route which Andy Flower and the other England managers demand – a message to all the others, I have no doubt.

Until a few years ago the bowlers could get away with the “rabbit” approach to batting. Now, even that’s all gone. In the last match England batted all the way down to No.11. Even James Anderson, the least good batsman in the team is OK for a few runs. Bresnan, who must be the best No.8 in the world right now, got a 50 and a 90. And when he’s out in comes Broad and Swann! And having that immense strength in depth gives the Upper Order batmen the confidence to play without the degree of fear they used to show. They can almost guarantee that the guys down the order can dig them out of a hole if the top Six get out cheaply, so they can play with a degree of freedom which allows them to express themselves.

Unfortunately, the vast disparity between the two sides became almost an embarrassment, and took away the huge pleasure one feels when two sides battle each other in a way which reduces your fingernails to the quick. It’s good to see your own side triumph, but the feeling in 2005 with the Ashes is far greater, simply because of the almost unbearable tension which built up in so many of those games.

It’s interesting that today, the ICC have announced a “World” Test Eleven, selected by the Great and the Good from the Cricketing world. It’s all based on individual’s performance from August 2010 – August 2011. In the Eleven, there are 5 England players – Cook, Trott, Swann, Anderson and Broad. From India, the ex No1 Test Team, there is one player – Sachin Tendulkar. I even think they’ve got that wrong. Rahul Dravid should have been there. But the main point is that only one of the eleven players comes from India, which does tend to make you wonder about the robustness of the ranking system which left India as No.1 Test side until a few days ago.

The other 5 players in the team come from two countries, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Sangakkara is chosen as captain, and the other four places belong to Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis. The fascinating thing about selecting such a World Team is – Who do they play? Mars away or Jupiter at Headingley?

All of which makes for a mouth watering Test series in 2012, when the South Africans visit England. Are we looking forward to that?

What do you think?