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What’s ailing England

England should have taken a decisive step ahead four times in Lord's Test, writes Harsha Bhogle.

England captain Alastair Cook’s mind is muddled with doubts (Source: Reuters) England captain Alastair Cook’s mind is muddled with doubts (Source: Reuters)

I am not sure the groundsman at Lord’s meant his wicket to be as challenging, and therefore as good for Test cricket, as it turned out to be. It was moody, fiery one moment, well behaved the next, but it gave you the impression it was always going to be naughty. And so it demanded appropriate counter-behaviour. India’s cricketers did it better. England, in spite of having seen many such capricious pitches, failed to control it. By the time the game ended, England couldn’t have controlled a group of church going kids, so scrambled were they in their mind. They seemed so low on confidence they may not have crossed a road.

It shouldn’t have been that way because this is a good England side. You may not believe it just now but they are. But winning isn’t just about being good, it is about summoning that ability when most needed. England should have taken a decisive step ahead four times in this Test match and you rarely get as many opportunities.

That they still lost indicates an inability to read the moment and often that is because the mind is clouded by doubt.

The first was when they won the toss on a designer pitch. Like in Mumbai a couple of years ago, when you make a pitch believing the opposition cannot win, you reveal arrogance and show disrespect to the opposition. Sometimes, as in this Test, you can get bitten by your own folly. India ground out a total with modesty and assurance, and a bit of luck that seems to accompany such an attitude, but they also did so because England bowled dreadfully. At lunch on the first morning, some 7 percentage of balls were hitting the stumps.

And yet they had India 145 for 7, indicative in itself that if you bowled even a few well you could have the opposition in trouble. A masterly innings thwarted them. Ajinkya Rahane played an innings his idol, Rahul Dravid, would have been very proud of. It was old-fashioned in its craftsmanship, it respected the ball and did so with confidence, but it was modern in its execution. Jimmy Anderson was hit over his head for six for example! But if every ball from England had interrogated the batsman, the score would never have got to 295. That was opportunity number two.

Then again on the fourth day, in spite of a revealing show of fortitude from Murali Vijay, they had India 235 for 7, 211 ahead. A tricky lead but not insurmountable. India seized the moment, and it is debatable whether they were allowed to, but that was another decisive turn away from England. And finally when they had fought back to 173 for 4 on the last day, when the doubts were in the Indian camp, when they could have played to the fear of another defeat in Indian minds, England came apart spectacularly. If you were an England supporter you would be allowed anger and agony.

Each time the opportunity to seize the moment came England’s way, they were found wanting. How you approach such moments in life, and a Test match is a microcosm of life itself, reveals the confidence you have in yourself.

It tells the world who you are at that moment. Each of those four went India’s way. The first two were approached with diligence but the next two, later in the game, with a show of aggression. Inevitably, both with Jadeja’s batting on day four and the decision to bowl short with Ishant Sharma on the fifth day, there was accompanying risk and the plan could have backfired. But hardly any situation in life gives you a hundred percent chance of success and India backed themselves. In doing so, the captain, often accused of letting things drift, sought to grab the moment.

England, on the other hand, receded into negativity. Self-deprecation may be good over a conversation but I greatly fear it is becoming a reflection of the way they are playing sport. People I talk to here, in the media and elsewhere, seem to say “Oh, they’ll find a way to lose” and I wonder if that is what the cricket team believes too. Or maybe the captain does. Maybe his personal form causes him to feel that way, maybe the absence of a maverick who challenges negativity could be a reason.

Meanwhile, India are on the door-step of putting together a fine team. And the captain seems to have moved away from being defensive, from letting a game drift, to seeking to own the moment. Maybe he believes in this team more but this is an opportunity for India to do something big.

The next four weeks will tell us a lot of things about ability and self-belief. I am looking forward to them.

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