When the Britishers relinquished their most prestigious colonial outpost, the city of Chandigarh was not even born, let alone conceptualised. It was an obscure marshland, with a temple and fort, en route to their winter capital, Shimla. The city was Jawaharlal Nehru’s conception, and when he entrusted US architect Albert Mayer in 1949, he envisaged a modern metropolis “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future”.
Hence, the place has negligible vestiges of colonial architecture, or even culture. But it would be here in Chandigarh, more than Rajkot and Visakhapatnam, two powerful kingdoms during the British reign, that the English players would feel most at home. For precisely the reason that the weather here is the closest they could reprise of England. Rajkot was humid; Visakhapatnam muggy. But Chandigarh, in November, can be England in summer, albeit the notoriously fickle showers. Mornings here are balmy, afternoons pleasant, evenings breezy and nights a tad chilly.
The weather, undoubtedly, will have restored their flagging spirits. If England’s morale was bruised in Visakhapatnam, they didn’t show any of it in the two practice sessions here. True, sportsmen are professional enough to masquerade their emotions, but when a team is toxically downcast, every now and again they’ll throw up signs of disenchantment.
But seeing them practice, you didn’t spot the defeatist mentality setting in. There seemed a perceptible unity of purpose. In the nets, they were rigorous on their bodies. The pacers would steam in and crank the ball at the batsmen’s throat. The batsmen would take the blows — Jake Ball had Ben Stokes in writhing pain when he struck him flush on the calf — and then return in kind. A couple of deliveries later, he thumped him straight onto the sight-screen. The spin quarter kept Saqlain Mushtaq perennially pre-occupied. The football sessions were brimful of vigour and banter.
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Not at any point they seemed sullen or battle-worn. They had a couple of days off — the first they spent travelling and lazing around at the hotel while on the second day, they played golf at the Chandigarh Golf Club and went for a temple trail. It would have helped them switch off from the game and return refreshed. In the press conference, skipper Alastair Cook hardly seemed a man under immense scrutiny. He was fresh and upbeat. “The guys are in good spirits. We’ve played some good cricket on this tour so far. Yes, we lost the last game. But there were some aspects of it over the last 10 days of cricket where we’ve played well and have managed to put India under pressure,” he said.
That England lasted for 10 days in the two Tests they have played is a creditable achievement, given the propensity with which touring sides have folded out of late. The three sides that have toured India between England’s trips in 2012 and 2016 would attest to this fact. Both Australia and South Africa saw the full five days only once each in four Tests. West Indies were routed inside four days in both Tests. The Black Caps managed to stretch the first of the three Tests to the fifth day.
In this light, England have achieved a mini-accomplishment. During the last four years, no team has come remotely close of winning a Test in India, the way England did in Rajkot. They have been far more competitive than these sides, and they also have a skipper who has been at this very same juncture and then pulled his side back to memorable series triumph.
2012, the sequel?
To expect England to rally back as they had in 2012 seems optimistic, but’s not implausible. You might scan through the team sheet and not find someone of as combustible ingenuity as Kevin Pietersen. Or as silken as Ian Bell, or as tenacious as Ian Trott or as bloody-minded as Matt Prior. Not to discount the craft and cunning of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. They have an unsettled middle-order and a brigade of spinners who have been outdone by their Indian counterparts, and a pace firm defected by Stuart Broad’s injury.
But to write off England is sheer impetuosity, though India will again begin the match with an upper hand. First, they still have someone answering to the name of James Anderson. There is Joe Root, a modern batting galactico, the invaluable Ben Stokes and the skipper himself. Then there is a vastly improving group of young individuals. Chris Woakes can whip up serious pace and trouble even an in-form batsman like Cheteshwar Pujara, Adil Rashid is getting a hand of the subcontinental strips; Moeen Ali seems all at ease with his enhanced responsibilities. Haseeb Hameed looks he belongs to this level; Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have undisputed potential to turbo-charge their batting. Also, in any given combination, they have the cushion of six bowlers, a luxury India can only watch enviously.
Moreover, India, are not entirely bereft of defects, even in their own backyard. They can be shaken, just like England, which sets up an intriguing series ahead. There is an opener who struggled after his return from an injury; there is a middle-order mainstay who has looked unusually troubled, a No 6 who is more of a bowling all-rounder and a wicket-keeper who is returning to five-day cricket after eight years.
There are also hushed whispers that they are not as proficient in playing spinners on dustbowls as their predecessors. A few numbers in the South Africa series attest to that — India scored 300-plus only once and only Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay managed 35-plus averages.
But then Virat Kohli is now in imperious form. Pujara on a century binge. Terminating them cheaply will be England’s priority. Especially Kohli. Getting him out in the first six overs will be the key, reckons Woakes. His skipper seconds: “Like any good player the best time to get them out is when they first come to the wicket, there’s no doubt about that. No matter how good you are when you’re getting your eye in.”
The Indian skipper, indeed, has at times been tetchy in the series. In Visakhapatnam, Anderson induced a top edge when he was on 4, before Broad in his second spell beat him with a terrific leg-cutter. Then Rashid squared him up with ripping leg break just before he reached he was dropped by Rashid himself off Stokes when he was on 56.
Also, of all the venues, the toss perhaps is the least significant here. If the strip lives up to the traditional reputation of having a decent amount of bounce, it’s better to bowl first and make use of whatever little assistance they can purchase off it. If it’s a turner like it was against South Africa, the toss becomes inconsequential as it would ally spinners throughout the match, reducing it to a who-blinks-first affair. If someone like Dean Elgar can pick up four wickets on the first day, surely can Rashid and Moeen.
They would do better with a bit of luck as well. Cook would agree they had vital slices of luck in the last series here — like the run out of Virender Sehwag on the first morning at Eden Gardens. India were cruising at 47/0 in 10 overs when the Samit Patel and Steve Finn paired up to send Sehwag back to the pavilion. And reversed the momentum.
In the second innings, they ran out their most prolific batsman in the series, Cheteshwar Pujara. Then in Nagpur, Cook produced a direct hit to run out MS Dhoni at a crucial stage. Then, they have to manufacture some of their own.
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