A lot has been said about how England have done their business in the first two Tests.
At Rajkot, as per one school of thought, they were too conservative with the declaration. That setting a target of 310 runs in 50-odd overs on a fifth day pitch was not enticing enough for India.
“We just didn’t want to give them a sniff. Maybe a braver person would have set them 240, but I thought it was a fair declaration, especially in the first game of the series,” said Alastair Cook after the drawn Test.
It is a tough job arguing with cynics, but a cricket captain isn’t paid to do that. His primary concern is the best interest of his team, and England’s position at this juncture needs to be underlined.
They had come into this series a bit under-cooked. Unlike in 2012-13, when England played three practice games before a four-Test series, this time they had one net session in Mumbai before Rajkot. Sure, the ECB had designed the Bangladesh tour to give their team good couple rounds of practice. But that series ended in a 1-1 draw, with an embarrassing one-session collapse in Dhaka, putting Cook and his men on the back-foot before even boarding the flight to India.
The issue then becomes of intent. England were in a position to dictate terms to India after they put 537 runs on the board in their very first innings of this series. And this culminated in an intense final session of play on Day five, when India were just four wickets away from a stunning defeat.
“From the outside, it looked worse than it really was,” said Virat Kohli, about the condition of the pitch, after he had helped his side save the Test. There are two ways to look at this. One, the pitch hadn’t worn down enough to inflict a loss on the hosts. And two, England had made quite an impression in pushing India.
Either way, Cook’s intentions couldn’t be clearer. He knew he couldn’t force a win, and at the same time, he didn’t jeopardise, giving India a chance to chase successfully. Sure, it does leave some space for a contradictory view, but it pales in light of England’s dubious run-in to the series. A 0-0 score-line is always better than going down 1-0.
The Visakhapatnam Test comes into focus, here. There can be no doubt in the differentiation between a 300-target and a 400-plus one. Mind you, this pitch wasn’t a raging turner either, despite such predictions. Compared to Rajkot, it was similar in terms of variable bounce on days four and five, a bit more pronounced. The big disparity was in the absence of a green patch at the good length zone.
Because of that grass, the Rajkot wicket didn’t deteriorate at all. The Vizag track however allowed just enough turn for the finger spinners to get going. Jayant Yadav’s delivery to Ben Stokes is a case in point: pitched on good length, it turned just enough to knock back his off-stump, an early contender for ‘ball of the series’.
“There are runs to be had on this pitch. We have shown we can bat for long periods here. (But) If a ball’s got your name on it, it’s got your name on it,” said Jonny Bairtsow, after Day three in Vizag.
Haseeb Hameed would agree with him. England’s blockathon had two crucial moments, and both pertained to the dismissal of their openers. The 19-year-old got the worst of it, a low delivery spinning in and he could do nothing about it. And then Cook’s own dismissal, in the last over on Day four, broke the proverbial camel’s back. Thereafter, it was a matter of time.
“Thanks for reminding me,” Cook jibed, when asked if it was the turning point. “We made a conscious effort to play that way. It’s not some people’s natural way of playing. But we made a clear policy.”
England needed to bat out 150-odd overs to salvage a draw in Vizag. Looking for runs was never going to do. Blocking everything in sight could have possibly done it. They did see out 98 overs, nearly. It was just a matter of another 60-odd, maybe another partnership or two. Of course, there are those who disagree.
“If you don’t have intent in the fourth innings, it is tough to play out four and a half sessions,” said Kohli, after the 246-run win, questioning what the opposition had done.
It reflects on how the two captains approach this game. Cook is a blocker, by nature, and by resolve. This is the way he has known – and played – cricket for over a decade now. This is how he has built England’s Test team for a better part of that period. It has worked in the longer format, because time is a factor herein, which supports his theory of patience. Obviously, it didn’t work in limited-overs’ cricket, leading to disastrous results in the 2015 ODI World Cup. So much so that England had to reboot their set-up entirely.
Kohli, meanwhile, is a product of that same limited-overs’ arena, one that feels alien to Cook’s mannerism. It is seen in his changed batting approach in Tests. It borrows heavily from the manner Kohli builds his innings in ODIs and T20s – cutting down on aerial strokes and increasingly playing along the ground. It is definitively identified from his running between the wickets, across formats. His batting today is an assimilation of learning from different formats.
In summation, it leads to certain questions. Would India have gone for the win in Rajkot if they had been afforded a little more time, say 310 in 70 overs? Would England have batted more positively if they were set about 350 runs in Vizag?
The contemplation of these answers is a coming together of two distinctive schools of cricket. And within this setting, Cook and Kohli are dissimilar not only as batsmen but as leaders too, obviously. So much so, they do not appear to belong to the same time period despite playing in one.
If Kohli is a representation of cricket today, and maybe even a peek into the future, Cook is a relic from a bygone era. That they have come together, and are shaping their teams’ ideology for supremacy over one another, lights up this India-England contest like never before.