India vs England: From sizzle to fizzle, how hosts clipped Joe Root and Co's flight of fancy

  • Yash Jha
  • March 6th, 2021
  • 19:41:37 IST

On the 6th of February, England finished the second day of this series on 555/8 in 180 overs. They would end their opening innings of the four-match contest on 578 in 190.1 overs – the longest any visiting team had kept India on the park in a decade. Three days later, they had inflicted upon India their first Test defeat at home in nearly four years.

A month can be a long time in cricket. On the 6th of March, England’s misery was over.

They say well begun is half done – never has that adage looked as inadequate as now. But don’t blame the visitors for that, because there’s another truism in present-day cricket, and this one held its course: there’s no greater challenge today than a Test series against India in India.

Over this month, England’s flight of fancy – a bid to become the first visiting side to win a Test series in India in over eight years – was first halted mid-air, in Chennai itself, before it nosedived upon arrival in Ahmedabad. It wasn’t that their engines were inadequate, as we saw in the first chapter at Chepauk; it’s just that they were up against the smoothest machinery around. And by the time the caravan moved to Motera, that machinery was motoring – almost on auto-pilot.

Think about it. What’s on the wishlist when you arrive in India for a long Test series? You’d yearn to keep the hosts’ batting in check, and you’d long to find a way to deal with their spin threat.

England actually achieved the first of those targets, didn’t they? Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane – four of India’s top-five – averaged 22.33 between them, with a combined total of five half-centuries in 25 innings. Even the most optimistic of individuals in the English camp couldn’t have asked for more coming into the series.

And if you go back to the start, the visitors made a proper crack at target number two as well. The combination of Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar to support Ravichandran Ashwin may have been a third-choice spin attack of sorts for India, but still, in grinding 127.1 overs out of the trio for 418 runs in the first innings of the tour – while losing only five wickets – England were laying down a marker, stamping their preparations for the trial that awaited them. Most vitally – or so we thought, retrospectively – they were standing tall in the attempt to scale the mental barrier that can be so all-consuming for visitors to these shores.

What happened post the first innings of the series? 5/418 against spin became 62/750 in the seven succeeding tries – England averaged 12 runs, and lost a wicket every 29 balls, facing spin after their opening act on this tour.

The sweep, having given the appearance of the magic wand to swoosh in the face of the Indian spin wizardry, almost became an indelible curse instead: England averaged 38.75 playing any sort of sweep in the first Test; that figure dropped to 9.23 in the next three games.


Joe Root, sorcerer supreme to kick things off in the Chepauk cauldron, couldn’t conjure as many runs in his last seven innings as he did in his first. 368 runs at 46.00 reads quite credibly in the context of the series, but take away the sublime 218, and Root only averaged 21.43 – with a highest score of 40.

That exact trend, unfortunately, would hold true for pretty much every batsman in the England camp. Dom Sibley made a patient 87 to start his tour, then averaged 6.71 for the rest of it; Rory Burns made 33, then added only 25 in the next three innings to lose his spot; Ben Stokes dashed his way to 82, and averaged 17.29 thereafter; Ollie Pope’s first innings 34 was followed by a mere 119 runs in the next seven outings.

Of course, that trend isn’t so much of a numerical outlier. That first innings of the first Test was the only time England batted on a pitch that worked against the home spinners; once any amount of purchase came into the picture – and of that there was a fair amount – England were pretty much swept clear of the contest.

That should point to graver concerns in the English camp, best reflected in the haplessness of Jonny Bairstow – their spin specialist, ostensibly – once he began his campaign in the third Test. Bairstow faced 50 balls of spin, and lost his wicket thrice, for only 15 runs. Having flown back in to join the bubble after a short break post the Sri Lankan tour, the English number three was quite at sea.

There was a third checklist item too, a crucial building-block towards any kind of success in the longest form of the game, which went invisible for Root and co. beyond act one. England’s first five partnerships were 63, 0, 200, 124 and 86. Of the 75 partnerships that followed, not one touched 50.

All told, 578/10 in 190.1 overs was followed by 1009/70 in 370.4 overs.

And yet, when England do their internal review, what will pinch is a thought even Ravi Shastri accepted at the conclusion of the final Test: the scoreline didn’t reflect how close it was.

Folding up for 134 in the first innings of the second Test, only to see the opponent’s number eight score a century thereafter; collapsing in a heap after having been 74/2 on the opening afternoon of the pink-ball Test; having India at 146/6, before conceding 365, in the decider.

Maybe India would have eked out their results anyway, but England will move on knowing that they could – should – have pushed India a lot closer than they did in losing the last three games by 317 runs, 10 wickets, and an innings, respectively.

As pointed out by many, they seemed to have lost the two Ahmedabad rubbers in their mind even before they took to the field. But on both occasions, they didn’t help their cause with what they thought off-field either.

England loaded up on pace in the third game; India’s seamers bowled only 11 of their 79 overs in the Test – and none in the second innings. England then went to the other extreme, fielding Stokes as the only pace support to James Anderson in the series finale; the thin seam department took 7/133 in 52.5 overs, while the spinners leaked 2/216 in 62.

The woes of their batsmen in dealing with spin, while questionable, might still be considered pardonable; the failure on the strategic pitch – a clear misunderstanding of conditions – shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Then again, don’t let the might of this Indian assembly go unnoticed either. They were without their all-round ace, especially in home Tests, in Ravindra Jadeja. They were without both their standout seamers of recent times, who had outperformed even the spinners in India’s last two home seasons, in Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami. They were without a performing middle-order.

Yet, India had Axar Patel, and Washington Sundar, and Mohammed Siraj, and Rishabh Pant to go to. At the moment, some teams around the world could field all four in their first-choice XI – and three of them are unlikely to play India’s next game if all resources are available.

“Our bench strength is as strong as it’s ever been, and that’s a great sign for Indian cricket,” Kohli observed in the post-match presentation, proud to have led this juggernaut to a record-extending 13th home series win in a row.

Reinforcements and replacements have now pulled off two come-from-behind series wins on the trot for India – a feat that has only been achieved once before in Test history.

It’s a promising sign as they set their sights on the maiden World Test Championship final in June.

It’s also a scary sign to all of India’s challengers around the world, in this WTC final and beyond. If Kane Williamson, or anyone else, is asking, Joe Root and Tim Paine will testify.

Updated Date: March 06, 2021 19:41:37 IST

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