“We have to rest up well. I’m feeling fairly jaded now and I think the lads are,” England skipper Alastair Cook admitted. But the admission came not on Tuesday evening, when they laid the hopes of a 2012 encore to rest. This was, surprisingly, Cook speaking of himself and his side on the last day of the Rajkot Test, a match where they had genuinely harried India. Nearly two-and-a-half weeks have passed since, with the next two Tests coming and going at breakneck pace, and the signs of fatigue all the more perceptible. So much so that Cook’s statement appears ever more relevant now.
For, by the time Parthiv Patel smeared the four that ushered in India’s unassailability in the five-match series, England were an exasperated bunch, drained of energy and crippled of imagination. At mid-wicket, James Anderson was down on his hunches; Cook, at mid-off, dragged himself to congratulate his Indian counterpart; Chris Woakes, standing at long-on, grabbed a few gulps of Gatorade. They wore the look of a side not just thoroughly beaten, but also disenchanted, and desperate for a break that would refresh their spirits and bodies. The getaway to Dubai, before the Mumbai Test starting on December 8, might not have been timelier.
Then, Cook and his men won’t be the first tourists to feel the rigours of touring the subcontinent. Ask any of his predecessors, and they would readily vouch that it’s not an excursion to an exotic former colony. They’d also say it’s not only the crumbling tracks or the mystique-laden tweakers who would make their life miserable, but also everything from the heat and humidity to snarling traffic and spicy food.
In the press conference, Cook came looking every bit like a battered soldier posted at a far-flung warfront outpost. He didn’t pose fatigue as an overwhelming excuse for their defeat. But he conceded that he just wanted to a hug a pillow and snooze off for the rest of the night and day. He seemed dejected, even a little distracted, the eyes wandering into the corners of the hall, even as he replied to the queries, a touch impatiently.
Kohli’s mood couldn’t have been more contrasting. He walked into the room with the strut of a proud man. He looked fresh and relaxed, even a trifle playful, cracking jokes with the cameramen and warmly reciprocating the greetings from the media. The only instance he grimaced was when asked about the Ben Stokes-needling bit.
How the state of mind dictates the state of the body couldn’t be better illustrated. For wins, hard-earned wins, can gloss over physical tiredness. Setbacks, on the other hand, can only exaggerate it. And territorial alienation can magnify it.
Moreover, England, more than India, have been playing without much of a break since May last year. In this span, they have travelled to West Indies, Bangladesh, the UAE and South Africa, hosted Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Add the two Tests agains India and they have played against all Test-playing nations barring Zimbabwe.
That is 29 Tests in 16 months. India, in the same period, have only travelled to Sri Lanka and West Indies, besides hosting New Zealand and England. That is 14 Tests, one of which was abandoned, less than half played by England. Fatigue, then, can shake the resoluteness of a team as well. England’s resolve was snapped on more than a couple of instances in this series. The first signs of creaking occurred in that bizarre session on the second day of the second Test, when they lost five wickets in a heap, from where it was impossible to hold India back from scampering away with the game.
Then, they folded in the first morning of the third Test, when the top four headed back to the pavilion before the lunch break. Then perhaps, most crucially, they were flat and insipid on the third morning, as they let India slither back into the match. It was like they had given up the fight altogether and already. They seemed just dreaming of the Jumeirah beach or the swanky malls.
Tilting 50-50 scenarios
Kohli’s troops ruthlessly exposed it, as you would expect Kohli’s troops to. A feature of India’s victories under Kohli, especially since the West Indies series, is their unwavering character to see through difficult junctures, their ability to hang in and eventually tilt the 50-50 scenarios in matches to their side. At Gros Islet, with the series yet undecided and West Indies inspired after their draw in Kingston. India were 126/5. In the same Test, West Indies were comfortably placed at 202/3. But yet India went on to score 353 and West Indies were bundled out for 225.
In Kanpur, the industrious Black Caps had demonstrated considerable powers of concentration to be 159/1, poised to surpass India’s total of 318. But they lost the remaining wickets for 101 runs. Again in Kolkata, India were 109/6 in the second outing, only to fight back and post 263.
Even on the final evening in Rajkot, India’s plight could have been worsened at one stage, only for Kohli and Ashwin to bail them out. Here, at 204/6 and trailing England by 79 runs, they were pushed to the brink, only to plug back and wheedle out a match-dictating lead of 134 runs. For every crisis, they had a firefighting man, the counter-puncher who took the blows and punched back at the opportune moment. And it was not just Ravichandran Ashwin who put his hand up in times of dire, though he was the most frequent one, but a whole lot of other unlikely protagonists, like Wriddhiman Saha, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and in this Test Parthiv Patel and Jayant Yadav, fashioning Test wins.
The runs made by the lower order and the medium pacers (should we start calling them pacers, given the consistency with which Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav clock 90 mphs providing crucial breakthroughs?), and the replacements hitting the straps straightaway, without any frisson whatsoever, gives the team an Australia-like over-my-dead-body mentality. They exploit the opponent’s slightest vulnerability, in this and the New Zealand series, without tailored assistance from the wicket.
You can’t level the accusations of dishing out raging turners against New Zealand and England, as was the case against South Africa. Kohli duly pointed this out: “I think it has been exactly 12 months (since they were alleged) about playing on unfair pitches and the question has turned itself. So we don’t need to say much about the pitches.” Even Cook couldn’t but acknowledge the same.
Before the series, Englishmen would have been primarily wary of two elements — the pitches and Ashwin. The former, so far, have been far from dreaded. Ashwin has been prone to occasional bursts of patchiness, like he was this morning. But still they have found themselves playing catch-up cricket in the series. And Cook had what Kane Williamson didn’t — the luck with the coin twice. But as the English skipper later said, “You don’t just win the toss and someone gives you 400. You have to go out and play well to do it too.”
Now, Cook reaches the very shores that catalysed their turnaround last time round, with a battered ego and a battered squadron. The Dubai sojourn will recalibrate them and beat the fatigue, he believes. But beating these well-drilled men of Kohli seems grimly improbable. Even if the pitches are benign and Ashwin not at his penetrative best.
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