“No Ravi, don’t get fooled by the clouds. Look at the pitch. It’s dry.”
Misreading at Edgbaston
Just before the toss in the first Test at Edgbaston, Michael Holding spots Ravi Shastri on the ground and seeks him out. Legs splayed out, Shastri is standing there with the arms akimbo and takes a few seconds to realise Holding is walking straight to him. They shake hands and have a chat. Later, Holding reveals what was said. “Shastri was pointing to the clouds and saying the ball might do a bit here. I told him no.” He had a similar conversation with Ishant Sharma, who too had doubts about the lengths to be bowled on that pitch. The toss was won by England, but it revealed the head space India were in. By the end of the series, they were talking about how they can’t be caught on the back foot at the start of the series. That they can’t afford to be down 0-2. That perhaps there was some tentativeness in the mind at the start. The pitch conversation showed more than tentativeness: a failure to read the pitch. Luckily, England threw away a great start, collapsing from 216/3 at one point to be 285/9 after the opening day, and it also showed India that England were combustible, unsure about themselves and could collapse under pressure. But over the series, they didn’t capitalise on that. And the pitch reading didn’t improve. It would come back to bite them in the next Test.
“What’s the feeling back home, from the media and public, about India’s decision to play two spinners here at Lord’s?”
Team combination at Lord’s
It’s the last day of the second Test at Lord’s, and a very senior member from England’s team management asks you. He wasn’t mocking; it was a genuine earnest query stemming out of bafflement. That India went with two spinners in the second Test at Lord’s when the scheduled first day was washed out due to rain. Dark pregnant clouds hovered around throughout the game, but the Indians this time, it seems, had their eyes on the ground. Mistake. The ball swung from outside leg to off. The Indians were dealt the wrong cards after losing the toss and saddled with the wrong team-combination, and were blown away. They stood no chance in this Test, after the team combination, the toss result, and again, the misreading of the pitch.
“If we had won that first Test na, inki aisey maarte, mazaa aa jaata. But wait and watch, we will win this Test. All nonsense will stop. England’s batting isn’t good, if our batsmen put up a good score, we can win this.”
Stirring fight at Nottingham but….
It’s a quote from a top member of the team management. We are sitting at a restaurant in Nottingham, two nights before the third Test, and he oozes confidence. He talks frankly about how they goofed in reading the pitch and the team selection in previous games. The pressure of being two down in a five-match series is clawing his back, but he says his team can pull things around. You sit impassively and he says, “You just watch. What you guys don’t realise is that this England team can be put under pressure even without helpful conditions. We can get them with match pressure.” Prophetic words, as it turns out. The irony was that England had bared its vulnerable soul on the first day of the Test series, but the Indians had missed ramming it home. The ability to cross the line wasn’t quite there yet. As an aside, it’s amazing to see how pressure grows on a travelling team. Former cricketers, media and public can get to them. It’s a kind of insane pressure that people on the outside can sometimes can’t spot. The Nottingham game also leaves you with a thought: Is this a turnaround or did the win come because there wasn’t any real expectation from the team? The pressure that piles on when people think you should be winning those crucial moments. It was no small feat coming back from the dead, from 0-2 when everyone was thinking about a whitewash, but that thought did hover around in the mind. Can the boys do it when the stakes were higher? Especially as you worry about the effects of frequent chops and changes on the team. What would they be thinking?
“It would have been better if they had said at the start of the tour, ‘guys, we will go with the same team for the first three Tests. Do your best.’ That gives a different kind of confidence. Kohli is a good man and wants the best for the team and doesn’t mean to create it but the changes make you doubt yourself.”
Doubts in Southampton
It’s from a player. It says much about the state of affairs. As you speak around to a few players, you realise the problem isn’t too severe, internal rot hasn’t set in, but there are doubts floating around. Sometimes, it’s self-created by players. At times, it’s due to the leadership. Human nature, basically. Does the captain or coach think one isn’t fighting hard enough? Are they disappointed in us? This train of thought generally take a life of its own and slowly spreads. Second day of the Test. England on the back foot. Game waiting to be seized. Kohli falls, and a procession starts. Ajinkya Rahane plays around his front pad and is lbw. Rishabh Pant sends out an impersonator who is hell bent on blocking everything. Tuk Tuk, the pressure builds and he falls. R Ashwin plays a reverse sweep without settling. Hardik Pandya trusts his defence too much and fails to bring in attacking options. Game slips away. India are now on the run and slowly England climb all over them. Next day, a dry track with rough patches, but Ashwin can’t turn it on. He is unable to land them consistently. Is he injured? Graeme Swann thinks he is as he is unable to finish his action at times. Whispers emerge about groin pain and general stiffness, but aren’t confirmed. Could he have hit the rough more? Later, Shastri says Ashwin was fit. Moeen Ali stuffs India with some crafty accuracy. None in the Indian top order tries to do anything different against him. They play him from the crease and he eventually swallows them. Once Kohli falls, India fall. Again.
“This team has marbles. Plenty positives. Humbly accept the scoreline. We are better off after this. Watch.”
Trouble at The Oval
It’s a member of the team management. Chastened and quietly confident about the potential or false braggadocio? Time will tell.
After trailing the whole game, the Indians show great heart and fight on the last day, prompting a senior management figure to say that. India are again held back by the inability to cross the line at crucial moments. Even on the miraculous final day when India raged against all odds, threatening to pull off a heist, making Anderson say that he feared “they were getting too close”, when push came to shove, the Indians fell. When real pressure piled up, when victory or a draw peeked at them, they blinked. It’s been a recurring theme through the series. Considering the bowling unit has been fabulous (though better plan and discipline could have been shown against the lower order), the team has the ability to compete. It’s the batsmen who let the team down. Unluckily for India, it was their batsmen who faced all the pressure points: the chase at Edgbaston, batting first at cloudy Lord’s, collapsing tamely when they could have got a match-winning 125-run lead at Southampton, and when something special loomed on the final day of the series. The bowlers would put India ahead, the batsmen would push them back. One step forward, two steps back. There, but not quite there. Close, but no cigar. The story of the series.