Monday, March 13, 2006

Second Test: India win by nine wickets



The exciting, satisfying task of chronicling the success of the English cricket team in the last few years has turned into a heavy-hearted charting of one failure after another.

This was Old England: batting collapses, bowlers that couldn't judge the line right, an apparent inability to work out what to do when the opposition started fighting back. The disastrous note on which this tour began, with the injuries to Giles, Vaughan and Simon Jones and the mysterious dropping out of Trescothick, was momentarily suspended by the team's successful domination of much of the first Test; but that note is resonating loudly again.

On possibly the most England-friendly pitch in the whole of India, and with Flintoff calling the toss correctly for a second time, this should have been a guaranteed victory. Instead, the tourists capitulated in time-honoured, miserable fashion. So determined have England been to follow the success of their old adversaries Australia (on whom more in a moment) that they have developed an aggressive, punishing style of cricket which has served them brilliantly in the Caribbean, South Africa and on home soil. However, Plan B has somehow slipped out of the team's users' manual. A first-class team, a top-of-the-world team, would be able to adapt its gameplan to different conditions. The Asian sub-continent demands a more patient, probing style of cricket which sacrifices a fast scoring rate in favour of applied, dogged, grinding play of the type Graham Thorpe came to personify. It took Australia several goes to conquer India and England have yet to discover the knack.

There are other factors involved, of course, which makes one feel relatively positive about England's future. They have a very, very inexperienced middle order - Bell, Pietersen and Collingwood have just short of thirty Tests between them. Deprived of the experience of Trescothick and Vaughan, and the match-winning reverse swing of the brittle Simon Jones, England were always going to be on the back foot in this series. Alistair Cook is a great find, with a wonderful future ahead of him, but he couldn't be expected to produce the goods every single match, and India is a cruel place to make your debut. To have drawn (in impressive style) the first match was an achievement which earned the respect of all but the notoriously partisan Indian press. That this match followed familiar lines is... well, it was going to happen at some point.

And one shouldn't ignore the fact that India have most of the cards in their pocket: Kumble would be the finest leg-spinner in the world, were Shane Warne not to exist. The batting line-up is arguably the strongest in the world (Australia might have the edge over it, but the Ashes showed them to be not the team we thought they were). And, at long last, India have a pace bowler with real talent and threat: in the warm-up game, the unseen Munaf Patel destroyed the English line-up and he repeated the trick here. Brought up on years of warning about the deadliness of Indian spinners, our batsmen were not prepared for some of the fast stuff to be of equal quality.

And so to Mumbai, a spin-friendly pitch, and a match India can almost be guaranteed to win. Down to third go England in the international Test rankings, and there they deserve to be until they can muster the collective (and injury-free) talent and experience to beat the Asians on their own patch. This match, and the Pakistani tour in November, suggest that that time is still some way off.

Still, it's not all bad news: the most incredible one-day international match ever played (though some say the World Cup semi-final of 1999 at Edgbaston was more thrilling) took place yesterday in Johannesburg, and - this deserves bold print - Australia were hammered. Having set the hosts a world-record 435 to win the South Africans, possibly motivated by a "hell, let's go for it, we can't win anyway" mentality, smashed their way through the Australian bowling and set a new world record of their own with one ball to spare.

Since I don't have SKY Sports (I refuse to countenance a penny of my money going into Murdoch's pocket), I was able to follow the match only on the internet, but that was exciting enough. My mother (who has paid the devil's shilling) kindly rang me and screamed her way through the last couple of overs. The atmosphere was extraordinary, and this result sets up a thrilling prospect for the forthcoming Test series. Having been beaten in the Ashes, having lost this one-day series and drawn one with England, having even been beaten by Bangladesh, the era of Australian domination which has reigned supreme over international cricket for a dozen years is just about tipping over the edge into a downward spiral. Read the scorecard and enjoy.


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