The scoreline would say otherwise but India vs England was a series to remember. Those five Tests, 22 days, 62 sessions were intense, gripping, enthralling, emotional and intriguing.
If ever there was something that justified the oft-used cliche -'Numbers don't paint the true picture' - the most, it was the India vs England series scoreline. One glance and it feels like an extremely lop-sided contest, just like previous years. However, there was more to it, in fact, much more.
It was about a cornered tiger displaying his insatiable hunger, to finish as the highest run-getter on his return to the soil where he was hunted four years ago. It was about a baby-faced youngster showcasing the maturity of a sage to clinch the Player of the Series award in his debut series. It was about the intriguing battle of attrition between the best batsman and the most skilful bowler of this era. It was about a nice guy and a legend scripting a fairytale ending. It was about that skilful fast bowlers' relentless march into cricketing folklore. It was about that comeback man finally dusting off the doubts about his all-round credentials.
The five Tests, 22 gruelling days, 62 sessions in the series, contained more twists and turns than a snake farm.
Anderson stabbed at Kohli's weakness straightaway four years later, in the first Test at Edgbaston. The Indian captain surrendered twice but the English slip cordon kept the emergency exit gate open. What followed was a masterclass as Kohli batted on a different plane to score 53 percent of the team's runs (149 out of 274). He went on to add 444 more without giving his wicket to Anderson. It was a masterful battle. Relentless and resolute with no one giving away an inch. Edges were drawn, edges were beaten but the out-of-crease stance, long stride, soft hands and impeccable defence defied one of the most skillful bowlers in the world.
In the 2014 series, the Kohli vs Anderson stat read:
Balls faced - 50
Runs - 19
Average - 4.75
Dismissals - 4
After 4 years it reads:
Balls faced - 270
Runs - 114
Dismissals - 0
Every time the two faced each other it got you hooked. It was a fascinating contest where Anderson played on his ego and Kohli kept it in check. One ended up as the highest run-getter (593 runs at 59.30) and the other as highest wicket-taker (24 wickets at 18.12 and SR of 45.9)
Virat Kohli played 48 false shots against James Anderson this series, none of them bringing a wicket. Only once in the CricViz database has a bowler drawn more false shots from someone in a series without dismissing them; Harbhajan Singh bowling to Hashim Amla, in 2010. #ENGvIND
— The Cricket Prof. (@CricProf) September 10, 2018
It was a series in which Ishant Sharma suddenly decided to wake up like The Undertaker back from the dead and show the world that he is indeed the leader of the attack which he had been touted to be for approximately a thousand years, to instil that eternal hope.
Then there was Mohammed Shami. You could have erected a wax statue of Shami with hands on his head and smile of disbelief etched on his face on each of the five grounds and no one would have known. He swung, seamed, groaned as the outswingers flew past the outside edges and luck kept betraying him.
The Indian as well as English bowlers put on an exhibition of fast bowling. The only difference was that the English knew how to get the lower order out and the Indians didn't. And that was the key.
It's wasn't just the batsman vs bowlers. There was another battle being played out. The tactical one between Joe Root and Kohli. The field placements, team selection, bowling changes, taking the second new ball and DRS reviews, every minute detail came into play. A slight error in judgment from Kohli and woosh...the match was gone. Such fine were the margin of errors. And they generally are against quality sides.
In between, Sam Curran floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. He batted with the confidence of a student who had just cleared the dreaded math exam on the golden attempt. Flashes of batting brilliance were punctuated with impressive spells that possessed the WOW factor. You could play those inswingers that felled Hardik Pandya and castled Dinesh Karthik and KL Rahul, infinitely on loop.
Lord's was perhaps the only place where the conditions dictated the terms. The rest of the matches were played in ideal conditions required for a Test. There were no roads built or minefields constructed. Kohli explained the importance of sporty pitches when asked about what lessons can be taken from this series for the benefit of the game.
"First and foremost, there should be exciting pitches all over the world and both teams should be willing to go for a result," Kohli said. "It doesn't mean when you go ahead in the Test series, you start playing safe cricket. That's something I don't believe in and I don't think any team should be in that mindset because the fans will come and watch if both teams want to win. And be competitive and compete in every situation and that's where the excitement of this format and cricket lies and I don't think it should go away at all."
The sporty pitches coupled with the spirit with which both teams played, made the series more endearing. Tempers didn't flare, egos didn't swell and there were no 'pushgates' which carried on for eternity, four years ago. Milestones were applauded and brilliance was acknowledged.
Unlike 2011 and 2014, this Indian team competed. They lost 0-4 in 2011 and 1-3, three years later. In 2011, they never gained the momentum while in 2014 they lost whatever momentum they had gained after the Lord's Test, second of the series, drastically.
The first Test of this series left the nerves on tenterhooks before Ben Stokes ripped off his Freddie Flintoff mask on the morning of the fifth day at Edgbaston.
"What a game! Still trying to soak it all in," an overjoyed Joe Root said in the post-match conference.
India's Lord's Test performance made you feel that the Edgbaston fight was an aberration. Yes, the conditions were in England's favour but it's also about how they utilised those conditions. The England pacers, especially Anderson, showed immaculate control to beat time in a rain-marred match. And just when it seemed like this would be just another England tour of the past, the Virat Kohli brilliance struck England, again, in Nottingham and Hardik Pandya dragged back the Kapil Dev comparisons out from the ashes. The best part was the way they ground the English bowling in the second innings with a ruthless approach. Proper Test match batting. The series was alive.
Enter Southampton. Enter the nemesis - Moeen Ali. It brought out another dimension of India's struggle. Earlier it was swing and seam. Now it was spin. Curran stung first and then, Ali. At one point, Ali was making the ball do things in every delivery. India fought. Pujara fought. The Kohli-Rahane stand in the 245-run chase elicited hope and it kept you at the edge of the seat. But it was once again a case of so near yet so far because the lessons from the past were never learnt. India were often caught in a tangle of a constant act of saving and squander. The bowlers saved, the batsmen squandered. The series was gone.
Amidst all this, Cook struggled. Earlier, his struggles looked beautiful but now they had turned ugly. Time was up. And suddenly there was a meaning to the dead rubber at The Oval. Everyone wanted the nice guy to go out on a high. There was a guard of honour, rapturous applause, a century in his final innings, tears, a standing ovation that would never stop. And just when it seemed like India would throw in the towel for the first time in the series, two young men scripted a dramatic turnaround. For once, just for once, it seemed they could do the improbable and chase down 464.
Hopes soared high enough for people to believe, and in faraway Mumbai, in jam-packed local trains where there isn't an inch of space during rush hours, people somehow found a way to pull out their phones and check scores and streams on myriad cricket apps and start off conversations with strangers. These were scenes you would normally relate to a crucial ODI or a T20I. But this was a Test match. In a lost series. A dead rubber.
It summed up the interest Rahul and Pant generated in the Test. It didn't end the way India wanted but it was fitting that it ended with Anderson — who was unlucky, yet accurate, relentless, reliable and doubled up as the main and support bowler well — uprooting Shami's middle stump to go past Glen McGrath's record of 563 wickets to become the most successful fast bowler in Test history.
"Happy that Cooky was on the field to see that wicket, it's been a tough week," were his first words in the post-match interview with Sky Sports as he struggled to hold back tears.
The scoreline would say otherwise but it was a series to remember. Those five Tests, 22 days, 62 sessions were intense, gripping, enthralling, emotional and intriguing.
Did somebody say Test cricket was dying?
Stat inputs by Umang Pabari
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