There has not been a match during England's ongoing tour of India that can be called a series decider, and there won't be one either when the two teams cross swords at the haloed Eden Gardens on Sunday.
The ongoing tour of India has been nightmarish for England. They were pounded in the Test series, losing the five-match rubber 0-4. They might have hoped for a better showing in the ODIs, by bringing in specialists in the format – the Jason Roys and Eoin Morgans – but after two matches, they remain winless, and have lost the series with a match to go.
England, however, can't be faulted for a lack of effort. In the first match in Pune, they had pounded the Indian bowlers to post 350, which even in the last decade would have been out of reach of chasing teams more often than not. But flatter decks, bigger bats, smaller grounds, T20 cricket getting entrenched and generally a mindset to go after any total without fear have ensured that no score is safe nowadays, seriously deflating bowlers' confidence in the bargain.
The England bowlers, however, put up a good fight, reducing India to 63/4 in the 12th over. They had both Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni back in the hut, but Virat Kohli was still at the crease, and stayed there till he, with the help of Kedar Jadhav, put India well and truly on the path to victory. A lesser team, and a lesser batsman could never have turned the match on its head with such adroitness as Kohli did that evening.
If England lost to the sheer brilliance of Kohli in Pune, in Cuttack, they ran into two veterans of Indian cricket intent upon turning back the clock and proving that they are not finished by a long shot. Yuvraj was the chief architect of India's World Cup triumph in 2011, but his career went downhill thereafter, and he lost his place in the side. On Thursday at Cuttack, the southpaw had a rebirth of sorts, and along with Dhoni, created magic. England had again put their best foot forward, having reduced India to 25/3 in the fifth over.
However, if England accounted for Dhoni and Yuvraj in Pune, while letting Kohli run riot, it was the other way round in Cuttack, where they managed to dismiss Kohli for a cheap score, only to be pummelled by Yuvraj-Dhoni. The pair - one of the greatest that India have ever had - lived to their billing and not only steered India out of a tight corner, but put them in the driver's seat. They plundered 256 runs for the fourth wicket, propelling India to a gigantic 381/6.
England again put up a stout effort, and captain Morgan threatened to do the unthinkable and almost carried his team over the line. The visitors came within a mere 15 runs of India's mammoth total, but India prevailed in the end again. The scoreline may read 0-2 against Morgan's team, and they may have lost the series, but the ODIs in Pune and Cuttack have been much closer than what the numbers portray, indeed much closer than it has ever been in the Test series. What has led to England's undoing in the series is that they have faltered at key moments, which have ruined all the good work that had gone in before that.
In both the ODIs, therefore, England could not kill off the game when they had the chance, both with the bat and the ball. Thus, while they let Kohli in Pune and Dhoni-Yuvraj in Cuttack to flourish, their batsmen got out at crucial junctures of, having got their eye in.
The third ODI at Kolkata will offer them a chance to get back to winning ways before the T20 series starts on 26 January. They really have nothing to lose and must go all-out for a victory. Alex Hales' injury means that Sam Billings may have a look-in. He had given a good account of himself in the first warm-up match against India A in Mumbai, scoring a fluent 93 at No 3, and he may have to assume the mantle of an opener on Sunday. He has opened in ODIs only once before, in the third match of the series against Bangladesh last year, but can be quite a handy opener, if groomed into one.
Roy, for his part, expressed confidence in Billings as his probable opening partner. "He's (Billings) a fiery batsman. If he gets the role of No. 2, that would be great. He's a great guy to bat with -- runs hard, plays strong shots and that's exactly what we look for at the top of the order, just to set the tone," Roy said.
England may think better of pushing Morgan up the order to be Roy's opening partner, as he proved with a sensational century in the last match that his presence in the middle order is vital for the side. Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali, could also have been options to open, but their skills, one feels, would be required more in the middle order.
For India, the Eden match doesn't carry much of a significance, except perhaps providing an opportunity to test the reserves, especially with the Champions Trophy only a few months away. The match on Sunday will be the final one that India play before the showpiece event, and Kohli and Co would want to have good practice.
Opener Shikhar Dhawan was declared fit after an initial injury scare, but it is uncertain whether he will be selected to play on Sunday. He hit a half-century for India A in the first warm-up match against the visitors, but it wasn't exactly one of his more charismatic innings. An 84-ball 63 doesn't cut it in this day and age of slam bang cricket, and scores of 1 and 11 in the first two ODIs have not done his cause any good. So Ajinkya Rahane, who hit a strokeful 91 in the second warm-up match against the visitors, may be drafted into the squad in place of Dhawan.
KL Rahul, who was widely held to have established his place as an opener of the ODI squad, before the Champions Trophy, have also had poor returns in the series so far, and would really want to make it count at the Eden Gardens. Once Rohit Sharma gets fit, there will be four players vying for the opener's slots in the ODI team. Also, India may want to try out Manish Pandey in the middle order and give leg-spinner Amit Mishra a game.
It will, however, not be easy for the spinners of the team bowling second, as there is expected to be a lot of dew in Kolkata at this time of the year, which will make it difficult for the spinners to get a proper grip on the ball. Deliveries may skid off the surface and come on easily to the bat, making life that much easier for the team batting second.
What is a certainty, though, is that India will be relentless in their pursuit of victory. They can chop and change and experiment all they like, but the mandate from Captain Kohli will be – 'Go out there only to win'. That is what characterises a team under Kohli. Nothing, for them, overrides the need to win every game.
Former India captain and president of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), Sourav Ganguly has promised a sporting wicket for the final one-dayer. "It will be a good wicket, we hope to see a perfect cricket match," Ganguly said. This will be the first time that the ground will host a ODI since the India vs Sri Lanka tie in 2014, which was etched in memory as a result of the surreal 264-run innings by Rohit Sharma. What one can expect is a bald belter of a wicket and another high-scoring contest.
India have an average record at the iconic stadium, winning 11 matches of the 20 that they have played there so far. The high point for India in ODIs at the ground came during the Hero Cup in 1993. A 2-run win over a formidable South Africa in the semi-final, and the Anil Kumble-led destruction of West Indies in the final made it an occasion to savour. It was for the first time that matches were being played under lights at the ground, and the 1,00,000 attendance, the defeaning sound of a thousand crackers, a sea of paper lanterns, and the wintry smog combined to make it an other-worldly atmosphere.
The low point came during the 1996 World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka, when an abysmal batting performance by Mohammad Azharuddin's side shattered a billion dreams and led to the passionate Eden Gardens crowd to react violently. The match was stopped and handed over to the Sri Lankans. Images of a sobbing Vinod Kambli running to the dressing room after the match will forever haunt the Indian cricket fans.
England, on the other hand, have lost all three matches that they have played at the ground – two against India, and one, the 1987 World Cup final to Australia. They will desperately want to improve that record.
All in all, with not much riding on the match, it is expected to be free-flowing, exciting affair. A clean sweep will stamp India's superiority over the visitors in the 50-over format, after they have done it in the long-form version. However, the close contests in Pune and Cuttack tell you that England can't be counted out in Kolkata, and a couple of overs, one spell and one cameo innings can be the turning point. There has not been a wide gulf in quality between the two sides as in the Tests, but what India have done well is to do small things right and win small battles in the bigger contest. It is still advantage India, but not by a very large margin.
Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 15:17:44 IST