The England – India Test Series, billed as some kind of world title fight, is halfway through. And, as expected, it has been full of talking points, though not any that any Indian fan would have cared to imagine pre-series.
As England stormed into a 2-0 lead in the back-to-back tests at Lord’s and Trent Bridge, one key talking point was, of course, the ‘run-out’ of Ian Bell in the second test, and his subsequent recall by the Indian captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Dhoni deserves a lot of credit for his magnanimous act, as do some of his senior players, who presumably helped him reach the decision to recall Bell. It was especially charitable, as Bell was 137 not out at the time, and playing arguably the best innings of his Test career. Needless to say, much discussion centred around this decision, though few seem prepared to condemn Dhoni for his decision. In my view, of course Bell was naive, thoughtless, etc., as he himself later admitted (and if you watch the live replay, you suspect his batting partner Eoin Morgan thought so at the time). In my view, though, what many commentators overlooked is the fact that it was the fielder, Praveen Kumar’s body language that, wholly unintentionally, helped mislead Bell into believing the ball was dead. To me, that rendered the runout unfair, and, whilst not wholly absolving Bell of responsibility for his carelessness, should suffice to stop the Indians from benefiting from it.
Much fanciful talk has centred on this ushering a new era for ‘the spirit of cricket’, whatever that is. To which, the intelligent response can only be, fat chance. Others have accused England of hypocrisy, questioning whether England would have reacted in the same way had the shoe been on the other foot. It’s a sad reflection on professional sports if we have reached the stage where an act of sportsmanship is only valid if it certain to be reciprocated, otherwise it is merely gross naivety. No, let us judge the case in isolation, and I think it’s fair to say the right decision was reached, and India deserve due credit for this. Which is just as well, because they can’t take much credit for anything else that happened in the second test. What was billed as a close clash of heavyweights has turned into something more akin to Tyson v Bruno, with India being thoroughly, roundly pummelled by the hosts.
What has gone wrong for India? In a nutshell, everything. Losing their main strike bowler, Zaheer Khan, to injury after barely half a day of the series didn’t help. Neither did losing both first choice openers, Sehwag and Gambhir, through injury. Neither did the failure to pick a reserve opener, forcing Rahul Dravid to open in the second test. Fatigue, from back-to-back tests on the back of a busy tour of the West Indies, played a part too. Other failings are more familiar, at least to fans who have been watching India for more than a few years. Batsmen unable to cope with short-pitched bowling (take a bow, Messrs Raina and Yuvraj). Unthreatening, peashooter bowlers to match England’s cannons. But most seriously, England just look hungrier. There is a sense, watching India, that while being ranked number 1 test side in the world was a big thing for Indian cricket; it was all about the journey. Now they are at the summit, there seems to be little determination to stay there, and too much determination to rest on laurels and enjoy the riches and rewards of being the first Indian team to be the best team in the world, at a time when Indian cricket is more awash with money than ever. Sehwag’s injury and absence from the tour can be traced back to his IPL participation, while, whereas most of England’s players followed the World Cup with a nice rest, India’s players were, without exception, employed in the lucrative IPL. The difference in hunger and energy showed particularly strongly in the second test, where on the first two days, India dominated the first two sessions, only for England to fight back in the evening. By the third day, Bell came out in the morning and batted superbly, destroying India’s spirit and exposing their flaws in the most beautiful, seductive fashion. It was the kind of innings from Bell one watches cricket for, but is rarely privileged to see: technically very, very good, positive and attacking, aesthetically pleasing, and authoritative – from Ian Bell at that! Pietersen first, and then Morgan, batted around him – Morgan in particular scoring 70 at damn near a run a ball, without ever threatening to upstage Bell. By the time the lower order came in, India were on the canvas, and it was just left to Bresnan and Broad to put the boot in with bat and ball.
Where do India go from here? Though the series is only half over, it looks more likely than not that they will cede the world number 1 spot at the end of the series. In truth, they were never, away from home at any rate, the most convincing of champions – their bowling has always been too insipid for that. England, it seems, will take over their mantle. Though England may not hold on to it all that long either – they tour Sri Lanka this winter. England’s record on the subcontinent is, to put it mildly, not worthy of world champions: they will have to rectify that fast to hold on to that title for any length of time. In home conditions, though, they look as good as any side around. The bowling has depth, and plenty of hustle and menace, and though there may be question marks over various batsmen, any team that can bat Stuart Broad at 9 and Graeme Swann at 10 is going to be tough to bowl out. England have played with the ruthlessness, determination and belief of champions in this series. India have two tests left to remember how they became champions.
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