India vs England: Inadequate surface meets incompetent batting in inconceivable two-day finish at Motera

  • Yash Jha
  • February 26th, 2021
  • 11:51:10 IST

387/30 in 140.2 overs. The shortest completed Test match since 1935. 127/17 in 51 overs across the first two sessions of the second day.

Only two individual scores above 30 — another first in Test matches since 1935.

Well before India completed their 10-wicket win against England, minutes into the final session on day two — more than 20 overs short of what was the previous shortest completed Test on Indian soil — the conversation had shifted from the 22 men who played the game to the 22 yards on which it was played.

The winning captain wasn’t buying into it. “I don’t think the quality of batting was at all up to standards from both teams, to be honest,” remarked Virat Kohli at the post-match presentation at Ahmedabad. “...we were 100 for 3, hoping to make many more than we ended up with. Just a lack of application from both sides.”

“[It was] a very good pitch to bat on, especially in the first innings, and it felt like the ball was coming on nicely with the odd ball turning. It was, I would say, below-par batting from both teams.”

Kohli’s opposite number, having taken the first five-for of his professional career earlier in the day, wryly pointed out how his bowling exploits didn’t shed the greatest light on the pitch. “Sort of sums the wicket up slightly… if I’m getting five wickets, you can tell that it’s obviously giving a fair amount of spin,” Joe Root said about his 5/8 — the joint-fewest runs ever conceded by a spinner while taking five or more wickets in a Test innings.

India skipper Kohli felt it was a case of "below-par batting from both teams" rather than the pitch conditions that triggered batting collapses at Motera. Sportzpics

India skipper Kohli felt it was a case of "below-par batting from both teams" rather than the pitch conditions that triggered batting collapses at Motera. Sportzpics

You’d think the real assessment of the surface, unsurprisingly, lay somewhere between the contradictory stances of the two skippers. Was it a difficult pitch? Most certainly. Was it an unplayable one? Let’s see.

There is a quite specific imagery attached to ‘rank turners’ on Indian soil in recent times. Think Pune 2017, or Nagpur 2015, or, going further back, Mumbai 2004. You know, dust-bowls, spit-fires, et al.

The thing with those kinds of tracks — the ones that go from turning to treacherous — is that they almost entirely eliminate batters.

At Pune four years ago, Steven O’Keefe was able to pocket more than one-third of his career wickets, and thrice the tally he managed in any one of his eight other Test appearances. At Nagpur 18 months before that, no batter had managed to cross 40 — the number of wickets that fell in less than three days. At Mumbai, all those years ago, Michael Clarke was channeling his Shane Warne in running through India’s third innings, and India, immediately thereafter, were barely being challenged while (successfully) defending 107.

Generally speaking, these treacherous turners — snake pits, to some — provide one-way traffic; you’re never ‘in’, as a batter. That’s where you could spot a deviation in the post-mortem of this mortifying second birth of the Motera.

England were 74/2 in the first innings, India were 98/2 in the second, and England 50/3 in the third.

However treacherous or venomous or demonic a pitch may be, catastrophic collapses to the tunes of 8/38 in 27 overs, 8/47 in 21.1 overs and 7/31 in 13.3 overs can never really be the function of one factor. When all three transpire in the space of one game, it might mean the conditions are stiff but it definitely means the batting has been silly.

This brings us to the number 21. When 70% of the wickets to fall in a game come from deliveries that straightened — i.e., didn’t turn — how much of the blame should be attributed to turn? Yes, the turn on the non-wicket-taking deliveries plays on and with the minds of the batters. But when a bunch of high-quality exponents of spin-bowling, on either side, are winning battles in the mind, and not off the pitch, why is the pitch to blame?

Jonny Bairstow, ostensibly a spin specialist, brought in at number three to tackle the threat, faced three balls of spin in this Test — if not for DRS, he would’ve only faced two. Ben Stokes, in both innings, played for more spin than there was on offer. Ollie Pope, both times around, was snaffled by Ravichandran Ashwin’s variations — not turn, variation.

It’s not like India were much better, either. Cheteshwar Pujara played for turn when there wasn’t; Kohli himself went to cut one assuming there would be turn; Ajinkya Rahane went on his back foot to a quite full delivery; Rishabh Pant fell to an away turner that was quite out of his reach. Even Rohit Sharma, comfortably the best batter of the match, fell because he hadn’t swallowed the flight of the ball while attempting to sweep — and Rohit’s assessment of the 22 yards wouldn’t please the English faithful.

“The pitch had nothing, no demons. It was a nice pitch to bat on. The Chennai pitch turned a lot more than this. We applied ourselves there, we didn’t bat well in this Test.”

Sure, the words from Rohit and Kohli might be a case of damage control in the wake of a premature finish to the first match at a project heavily invested into by those running Indian cricket. But it just so happens that Rohit did bat for nearly four hours over these two days at Ahmedabad; England’s two innings, combined, lasted five hours. All told, in this third Test: Rohit Sharma 91/1 in 20.1 overs; England 193/20 in 79.2 overs. England’s is the lowest match total for a team losing all its wickets in a Test on Indian soil; only thrice has a team lost all its wickets facing fewer balls in a Test in India. It’s not a good look for the visitors.

It hasn’t been, at all, from the time any amount of visible purchase was on offer for spin. Post that inspired two-day long marathon to start this tour, England’s batting has crumbled in an unimaginable heap. They’ve gone from 578/10 in 190 overs in their first innings of the series, to 669/50 in 240 overs across the next five.

178, 134, 164, 112, 81. The last and only time England were bowled out for less than 200 in five consecutive Test innings was in the 1880s.

Considering only the more recent history, Thursday’s collapse is not isolated at all. Since the start of 2018, England have been bowled out for less than 100 on five different occasions. All other teams, put together, have had six sub-100 shut-outs.

These submissions have come across continents — from Auckland to Bridgetown to London and Leeds to now Ahmedabad — and against opponents ranging from New Zealand, West Indies and India in their own dens to Australia and Ireland on English soil. The propensity of going bust on bad batting days ought to worry Root and Co.

More immediately, more pressingly, Root might want his batters to do something about their spin-facing credentials. Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and Dom Sibley all average less than 28 against spin in Tests; Bairstow, through his two stints on this subcontinental start to 2021, is 5/52 against 108 balls of slow left-arm bowling he’s faced from Lasith Embuldeniya and Axar Patel; Stokes is 4/52 against Ashwin on this tour, and 11/202 overall in Tests.

“Virat Kohli worked his socks off to counter Jimmy Anderson in nippy English conditions. English batsmen have to work hard to counter these spin conditions. Cannot complain.”

Graeme Swann’s observation while summing up the proceedings for the host broadcasters might irk some in the English camp, but it’s something for everyone to chew on.

Since being infamously conquered over that wretched English summer of 2014 — 4/19 off 50 balls against Anderson, 134 runs in 10 innings overall — Kohli is yet to have been dismissed by the leading wicket-taker among pacers in Test history. He’s faced 434 Anderson deliveries ever since — including 270 in England.

Make no bones about it, this was an inadequate pitch. But for most of the 140 overs it lasted, it witnessed incompetent batting by two top Test teams. And that’s what gave us this inconceivable two-day finish at Motera.

Updated Date: February 26, 2021 11:51:10 IST

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