Alastair Cook’s somewhat chequered captaincy career has one massive highlight. In late 2012 he led his team to a Test series victory in India; something that England had not managed since 1984. A 28-year wait for success was ended on the back of runs for Cook and brilliant innings from Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and important contributions from Matt Prior.
That Pietersen innings of 186 at Mumbai is one of the best played by an England player, it was an instant classic to go along with his ridiculously good innings at Headingley and Colombo that year. However, Cook was the lynchpin. He made a hundred in each of the first three Tests, but perhaps his most important was the one made in the losing cause in the opening match at Ahmedabad.
India batted first and scored 521 for 8 on the back of a Cheteshwar Pujara double hundred before England were shot out for 191 in their second innings and forced to follow on. Cook’s 176 from 374 balls in the second innings showed his team that they could score runs against this Indian attack. While he has never been a great tactician, Cook is a captain that can lead by example. England did not lose another game that series, winning the next two and drawing the last to claim a stunning series win on the toughest of tours.
Whilst victory was set up by those Cook runs, that KP masterclass and very good knocks from others in the top seven, it was won by Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar.
Panesar didn’t play the first Test but over the next three matches he took 17 wickets at 26.82 as Swann picked up 20 victims at 24.75. The 37 wickets that they managed between them was what allowed England to bowl India out twice in two matches.
Now, Cook and England return to the scene of their most significant triumph of this century – yes they have won against Australia home and away but that was not in conditions that were so alien to them. With this success still relatively clear in people’s memories, you would hope that England would go into this series with some confidence of repeating the feat.
But this isn’t the same England side.
There are only five members of this current squad that played on the 2012 tour (six, if you include James Anderson who should be back for the second match). Only Cook (and Anderson) played every Test in 2012, and the players that made truly significant contributions are gone. There is no Pietersen, Trott, Bell, Prior, Swann or Panesar in this England team ,and they have managed to only replace Prior with a like-for-like player in Jonny Bairstow.
The result this time around is likely to be very different – it wouldn’t be all that surprising if this rampant Indian team that are so strong at home won the series 5-0. It is an outside chance, with rain and the batting prowess of Cook and Joe Root meaning there should be a draw or two.
The idea of England winning a game is almost fanciful. The reason for that is spin – bowling it and batting against it. Without that nuggety middle order that could dominate against spin, England have a flabby look to their batting line-up. If Cook and Root don’t fire, England aren’t going to make the massive first innings scores that are so vital to Test success in India. They are ripe for the picking by Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
There has been hardly any Test cricket in India over the last two years, just seven matches across the series against South Africa and New Zealand, but both Ashwin and Jadeja have been ridiculously good. Ashwin has 58 wickets in those seven matches at an average of 14.22, Jadeja has 37 scalps at 15,83. England’s ramshackle batting lineup have never faced an examination like it, and while they are talented players, this series has come too early in their development.
The advantage that England will have is the length of their batting order. In the first Test in Bangladesh, all eleven players had scored a first-class hundred and in the second Test they had Zafar Ansari batting at eight; he opens the batting for Surrey from time to time. The lower order may need to bail their batting colleagues some time in the series.
Then there are the spinners. England have four in their squad, and only one is certain of playing every Test. Moeen Ali gives England a fulcrum around which they can balance their team by batting in the top six, so he is an automatic selection. Whether it is one or two of Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari that join him in the starting XI is unclear and will be dependent on the pitch that confronts them. None of these combinations come close to matching what England had in 2012 or inspire confidence.
In Bangladesh, against a much weaker batting than they will face in India, all four of these bowlers struggled for control. Moeen got 11 wickets in the two Tests, and did so at a decent average, but while he is England’s best option and a fine all rounder he is no Graeme Swann. Between these four men, England need to find wickets and control. The fear is they will have neither.
For England to win a Test they will need their seamers to find some reverse swing, and have it long enough for them to get through the top-order. Swing is a mysterious thing when it is the conventional sort, getting it to go the other way on a regular basis is the cricketing equivalent of herding unruly cats. England cannot bank on it happening but will fervently hope that it does.
If India perform to their potential they will win this series and do so easily, but for England this will be a vital learning experience for a developing side. If they can keep this squad together until the next time they tour India, they may challenge them. But not this time.
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