When your skills are found wanting as much as England’s were, or as superior as India’s were, there’s only so much blame you can rest on the playing conditions.
England’s match aggregate: 298 runs in 114.1 overs.
Match aggregate of India’s last five wickets: 280 runs in 75.5 overs.
Even on a beach, those are humbling figures for any team.
While some of his predecessors made a hue-and-cry about the pitch, England’s present captain, Joe Root, made a more gracious acceptance of what transpired at Chepauk. “I think credit has to go to India, they outplayed us in every department this week. We’ve got to learn, and find a way to score in these conditions and bowl six balls to one batter.”
It was known, before this Test, and this series, what the challenge will be. The first of the two Chennai rubbers, like the one that followed, was a battle largely influenced by spin and sweep. While England came up trumps on the flatter pitch that crumbled later in the first Test, they came thoroughly outdone on the second surface, which took spin – and heavy puffs of dust – from the first morning itself.
That sweep shot had been such a topic of conversation from the series opener, and so adroitly executed by the English – their captain in particular – that even the Indians took a leaf out of it, and worked upon it, as openly accepted by both their centurions from this second game.
And the execution couldn’t have been more poles apart than it was this week.
India’s batsmen deployed the sweep 82 times over their two innings in the second Test, and accrued 135 runs for the loss of five wickets. England used the sweep 65 times, for the addition of 57 runs – but the loss of seven wickets. As per CricViz data, no team to attempt more than 40 sweeps in a Test since 2006 has done so at a worse average than England’s in this game.
If that was a scathing gulf, the margins became wider still in the execution of the skill that most influenced this contest: the two sets of spinners.
India’s spin trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav – combined match figures of 17/237 – averaged less than 14, took a wicket every 34 balls, and conceded less than 2.50 runs per over. For England’s spinners, meanwhile, every wicket cost nearly 30 runs, and took nearly 55 balls; they were worked around at 3.28 runs per over.
No single example illustrates this difference better than that of Moeen Ali. On the face of it, the returning off-spinner had another good outing against India, with four wickets in each innings. But he gave away 226 runs in 61 overs – 3.70 per over, in a match where India scored 3.38 per over. Particularly costly to England’s fortunes were his first innings returns of 128 runs in just 29 overs.
Over the first innings, the visiting spinners offered 14 full-tosses, and were cut or pulled on 20 occasions; the corresponding numbers from the Indian spinners were zero and 10. In the first innings, India’s batsmen stepped out to spin 81 times; England’s 20.
When your skills are found wanting as much as England’s were, or as superior as India’s were, there’s only so much blame you can rest on the playing conditions. On that count, Root deserves credit for his gracious acceptance of the gulf in his post-match comments.
As for the less magnanimous ones crying foul since the first morning of this Test, here’s food for thought. England took less than 35 balls per wicket they lost this week in Chennai – raising alarm-bells over the lack of a contest between bat and ball, and how that happens frequently in this part of the world.
Here’s the thing, though: this was the seventh time in 99 Tests in India since 2000 where India’s opponents have lost a wicket less than every 35 balls. The corresponding number for visiting teams in England is 23 out of 143. Seven per cent, compared to 16.
Different strokes for different folks?
Let’s not let this game go down as some dust-bowl horror, for it wasn’t. When you play on minefields, both teams struggle to reach 200 – like the South Africa tour of India in 2015. Chennai 2021, however, ought to be remembered for the spate of brilliant individual performances it showered over the last two weeks.
As Ashwin himself put it, barely audible with the cheering Chepauk behind him, this was more mind-field than minefield.
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