By Madan Mohan
England’s dreams of conquering the subcontinent received a comprehensive reality check at Hyderabad on Friday. Having gloated, justifiably, that India ought to back their No.1 ranking by winning in England, the boot is on the other foot for England now. They need to demonstrate that their bowlers will be lethal match winners in conditions that won’t favour them. They need to also show evidence of having overcome their traditional weakness against spin. On the second count, especially, their first strike was more whimper than salvo.
It is not as if England have never done well in the subcontinent in the past decade or so. Nasser Hussain led England to unexpected victories in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Under him, England also squared an ODI series in India. In 2006, England shared the spoils of a Test series in India. Generally, though, the results of their subcontinental sojourns have been far from flattering. They had the dubious distinction of losing to both Bangladesh and Ireland in the round robin stage of the 2011 World Cup. They then caved in against Sri Lanka in a very similar manner to their loss to Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal. Friday’s loss showed they may have some distance to traverse before they can break the subcontinental voodoo.
It didn’t help their cause that India’s spinners found the right length for the pitch – and indeed for subcontinental conditions, generally – early into their respective spells. Ravindra Jadeja stopped overpitching his deliveries and found a length that was also not short enough to get pulled or cut. It forced Alistair Cook to dance down the pitch to get to the pitch of the ball and the hoick that followed only found deep midwicket, kicking off a spectacular collapse. Ravichandran Ashwin took a cue from his spin partner and found a similar length, with similar results.
Yet, neither bowler bowled brilliantly in the match. They were not getting big turn off the pitch and were certainly not unplayable. All the more reason why the defeat would have been discouraging for England. The English batsmen were not only tentative in their footwork to spin, they also failed to pick the spinners off their hand. This is a vital skill for batsmen to thrive in the sub continent. If the ball takes turn off the pitch, the batsmen may find it tough to negotiate its trajectory. But if he can pick the bowler off the hand and strike him on the full, he can neutralise turn and counterattack effectively.
With the bat, Jadeja was able to read Samit Patel and Graeme Swann and loft safely with the spin. Again, Jadeja is no great shakes with the bat either; he’s just utilising a skill he’s acquired by playing so much cricket in Indian conditions. Contrast that with Jonathan Trott’s ugly slog sweep off Jadeja to get bowled. Aside from not looking elegant, the shot selection was poor because he had misjudged the delivery. He was evidently playing for the one that would turn away to leg. Instead, the ball went dead straight and took leg stump as Trott played all over it.
Note that Trott is one of the most solid batsmen in the current English batting line-up. So, his performance against India’s spinners on Friday is not what they’d have liked to see. It’d be unwise to write off England prematurely. There is a long way to go in the series and India are not full strength yet. But if it is any indication, then England’s subcontinental mission is going to be a rather difficult and painful one. Ian Bell will bring solidity to the Test line-up and skipper Andrew Strauss will return too, but not much else will change about their line-up. England would hope that, without the pressure of run-rates, Cook and Trott would not make such imprudent choices in their Test essays. But, the red cherry will be subject to a lot more wear and tear as the pitches crack and even defending against spinners on days four and five will present an enormous challenge for England.
Significantly, Cook mentioned post-match on Friday that it was a skill issue. It is not clear if he meant this in some conceivably positive light but the words don’t have a good ring about them. The time for overcoming lack of requisite skill sets cannot be after the team has landed on ground zero. England would have learnt their lessons well from Friday’s reversal, but the venue for the next ODI fixture is not the ideal place for better tidings. The Ferozeshah Kotla ground in Delhi is almost certainly going to be a slow and sluggish surface and this time, India will know exactly what they need to do to hurt England.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)