When England got their act together, India wilted under pressure

If this was tennis, score would have been 3-6, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. England raised their game and won, writes Harsha Bhogle.

Written by Harsha Bhogle | Updated: August 20, 2014 10:26:52 am
Ishant Sharma’s match-winning performance at Lord’s was the highlight of India’s 1-3 series defeat to England (Source: Reuters) Ishant Sharma’s match-winning performance at Lord’s was the highlight of India’s 1-3 series defeat to England (Source: Reuters)

At Lord’s India produced one of their best ever performances. After Lord’s, India fell over the precipice.

In the afterglow of that win, justified at the time because hardly anyone predicts tomorrow particularly well, we failed to realise that India’s win was as much England playing badly as India playing particularly well. Most wins are like that but England set the pace thereafter, they controlled play, and India never came back. You would be justified now in saying that the Lord’s win was one bad session with the ball for England and one bad session with the bat.

Admittedly, it produced the best innings of the tour by an Indian and among the three best for the series. Ajinkya Rahane was elegant and solid as was Murali Vijay and Ravindra Jadeja’s hit and miss style of batting came off. And we were treated to the spectacle of an Indian bowler bouncing out the opposition; though a few ego filled shots helped too. When you win a game like that, it must set the pace for the future. In the remaining three Tests India won one session of play. A particularly forceful argument might result in the concession of a second session. That’s all. If this was tennis, the score would have been 3-6, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. England raised their game and England won. Hence the awareness, in retrospect, that at Lord’s England dropped their game and India won.

Apart from Rahane, whose decline started a Test match later, Lord’s was the start of the crash of three others; Vijay, Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Gamely as he bowled thereafter, his choice of man of the series by the opposition coach was an indicator of the absence of any other contender.

The fall was staggering. It was as if, having hit the high notes, a singer couldn’t hum a lullaby. In the fourth and the fifth Test, India were, if calculated that way, bowled out twice in a day. And, more worryingly, it could have happened in fewer overs, so frequently did the batsmen play and miss. Was it the dropped catch off Cook in Southampton then that turned the tide? Or the poor lbw verdict in favour of Ian Bell? That would be clutching at straws. Who knows where that could have taken the series, who knows if the opposition captain wouldn’t have scored another run thereafter, who knows it might have led to an upheaval in the ranks. Does anyone ever know? But if one moment can change a series, it means a team is incapable of delivering that moment again. In which case it doesn’t control the game. For the last month of the series India were doing the chasing, the following.

The pitches helped the home side. They were made for bowlers who hit the deck, who put in energy and demanded more in return. Only one side could do that, but these were not unreasonable pitches in the last three Tests. I fear this has set the template on how to beat India. There will be many such in Australia later this year. More than ever before, it means the openers must lay the base. India haven’t done that for eternity.

The last fifty-plus partnership for the first wicket overseas came on the last tour here in 2011. That is an alarming stat for it means that the middle order was playing the new ball too early. And like with the slip cordon, India’s openers are also in a state of perpetual flux. Even though he tapered off, Murali Vijay was one of the positives of the tour, but who does he open with? I must admit I liked the idea of looking at Gautam Gambhir once again because I have been an admirer of his fighting spirit. But this wasn’t him. This was a man whose feet were as uncertain as a country’s foreign policy. India don’t yet know who opens the batting in Australia and that can’t be good.

Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli were the biggest disappointments, as much for the runs they scored (and didn’t!) as for the sense of disbelief they induced. Pujara, in such a young career, had created an air of inevitability and that has been punctured. Now a disturbing phenomenon has taken its place. His home average is 75, but away it plummets to under 30. Respect comes from those numbers being close to each other.

Kohli meltdown 

And of course we could fill a library with books on why Virat Kohli failed. This was spectacular. One of the brightest young players in the world was going through a meltdown in full view. The best filmmakers make bad films sometimes and I am convinced this is going to make Kohli a far better player in the years to come. This tour will change him if he doesn’t lose confidence completely.

There is much to like about Bhuvneshwar Kumar. He is unassuming but he swings the ball like few others. As one Test followed another though, he looked jaded. He was like an NCC cadet carrying a heavy rucksack on the way back from a long trek. I am not sure his body is built for this workload and maybe he needs to look more like Varun Aaron, who was the other plus for India. Bowling fast is only part of the story but to see an Indian consistently bowl at or above 140 kph was heartening.

Ishant Sharma was man of the match at Lord’s, bowled one very good spell on a dead pitch at Nottingham, but hardly played thereafter. There were wickets at the Oval too, but I am not sure too many fans will say this is a second coming just yet. His body, like with Bhuvneshwar, is not helping either. India need a spinner to bowl long hours so the seamers can stay fresh and we have now learnt what a mistake it was to believe that Jadeja, rather than Ashwin, was that man. I believe Ashwin will bat at No 6 for India one day, but all these years of batting too low have forced him into trying to hit every ball.

I believe Dhoni the cricketer came out of this tour with much glory. He doesn’t like batting at No 6 because I suspect he doesn’t believe that in overseas conditions, he has the defence to survive. But what he lacked in technique he made up with bravery and boldness. He moved up and looked the better player for it by finding his own way of going about it. One of the advantages of being relatively uncoached is that it teaches you to think for yourself and by doing so, Dhoni found a way that others couldn’t. Sourav Ganguly told me at the start of the tour that you must push Dhoni into more challenging situations because each time you do so, he comes out a better player. Ganguly was right.

But does Dhoni stay captain? Some of his decisions were baffling but he has always been driven by instinct. To be fair to him, he has rarely had the bowling to win overseas but the counter argument is that you must extract the most of what you have and it could be argued too that he hasn’t done that. I believe his continuation depends on the answer to one question. Have these wounds, inflicted year upon year overseas, led him to believe that India can’t win overseas? If that is true, the time has come, but I don’t know the answer to that. What India must not do is to stay with him on the theory that there is no one else ready. The status quo can often be a comfortable but sub-optimal alternative. My gut feel though is that he will take a call on his own future after the tour to Australia and the World Cup.

The descent in this series was one of the most dramatic I have seen. The way back will be long but must be accompanied by intent on and off the field.

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