England captain Alastair Cook, also the team’s opener, is struggling to keep the ball pinned to the turf and his head above water. Surprisingly, it’s an Indian opener, Murali Vijay, who has proved to be the best judge of pace and bounce on these pitches.
The home team might be dealing with a ‘short-ball’ trauma after Lord’s, but most visiting team’s batsmen, unlike in the past, have shown they can move away, duck, pull or hook.
Read the first para again, weigh the facts, and answer the following question. Which team is better equipped to play on a green wicket? It’s as good as asking: Which country houses the Taj Mahal?
So, shouldn’t Cook walk across to the Rose Bowl curator on the eve of this crucial Test and request him to shave off a bit of grass. But to do that he will have to really drag himself, withstand a stomach churn to get the right words out. Since this would mean that the batsman in him, the one who has scored 25 Test tons, would have to swallow his pride.
Plus, as a captain, he will need immense courage to tear apart the old, time-tested ‘how to beat India’ template, that after passing through the hands of his predecessors, was handed over to him at his coronation.
Green track, short bowling, that’s what the world did during Indian summers. After Lord’s, though, a rethink is needed. Some time back England took the tough call of showing the door to a match-winner, maverick and, alleged trouble-maker who the world called ‘KP’, but many in the team referred to as ‘The Ego’.
With three Tests to go, Cook’s team in transition needs to drive out 11 more ‘Egos’ before they enter the field at Rose Bowl to make a comeback in this series and be a force in world cricket. And this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Belief, the need of the hour
Getting rid of the bloated beast within is the biggest challenge an international athlete faces in a professional career. For a star to acknowledge a weakness and rectify it, all in public view, isn’t easy. It’s painful. Since early days these ‘special players’ periodically take giant leaps from being the best at home, locality, district, state, and, eventually the country.
It is their unflinching self-belief, aka ‘The Ego’, that makes them overcome several setbacks that have the mandatory presence in all sporting sagas.
Most don’t like to be told or be questioned. That’s the reason pacers make a face when a wicket-keeper or the slip fielders stand up to them, off-spinner feels offended when the skipper pushes the point back in his first over, or, like was the case on the final day at Lord’s, Matt Prior taking it personally when Sharma set a field of a deep mid-wicket, square leg and fine leg to bowl short.
After an average of 40 plus from 79 Tests, a key man in India’s humiliation home and away, Prior would have expected more respect from this visiting team of upstarts. So what if he had got out to the short ball of late and was nursing an injury, he was Matt Prior, England’s all-weather life-guard.
He was facing the ‘poor travellers’ with ‘short ball’ shortcomings and not known to bounce out rivals. After hitting his trademark ‘confidence shot’, the back-foot punch, that had followed a couple of middle-of-the-bat pulls, Prior thought he was back. Actually, he wasn’t.
The ‘back to form’ illusion was created by that bloated beast within. The old hand would soon ‘pull’ a Sharma short ball into the hands of mid-wicket.
His partner Joe Root, at that stage, would have thought, “It can’t be me as I have been on the crease for a while, I am in form.” Ego would claim another wicket, Joe air-couriering the ball into the hands of square leg. England would panic and collapse after these two wickets.
The short-ball theory, that was to work against the Indians, was working for them. At the start of the Test when England had won the toss and put India in on a damp track, Anderson, Broad and Liam Plunkett seemed to have referred to the ‘old template’. They had bowled short to exploit India’s historical weakness.
Cheteshwar Pujara would bat for three hours, reading the swing and gauging the bounce perfectly. Later, Ajinkya Rahane would compile a stunning ton, attacking bouncers despite the fielders on the leg.
To make matters worse, Cook and Ian Bell, England’s batting mainstay, couldn’t do what Vijay, Pujara or Rahane did. That’s because Bhuvneshwar and Sharma used the swing, the air and bounce from the wicket better than Anderson and Broad.
The shadow of Lord’s is so far-reaching that India would look to bounce out the English batsmen at Southampton. And since the tourists have a batting line-up that no longer feels inadequate to manage the rising ball, Mahendra Singh Dhoni might not mind a greenish track. Cook, though, should prefer more brown on the 22 yards.
For the England captain, this will be the most important toss of his career. Low on confidence, he could end up facing the fired-up India’s quicks on the first morning of the Test. Maybe, he should dump his ‘ego’ and have a chat with the curator.
Down 0-1, like at Mumbai in 2012, the Test where KP single handedly made it 1-1, Cook wouldn’t be pardoned to think: Maybe, England shouldn’t have dumped ‘The Ego’.