Monday, 22 August 2011

Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?

Monday, 22 August 2011
A 4-0 whitewash and top of the world feels like I'm dreaming!

The previous day India had been bowled out in the first innings for 300, their highest score of the series. Dravid played an outstanding innings, carrying his bat with 146*. The rest of the batsmen didn't offer much support, only Mishra making it beyond 25. India had it all to do to save the gave the next day, especially with three of their best batsmen - Sehwag, Dravid and Laxman - out before the close of play. The legend Tendulkar had made it to the end of the day, still in search of the elusive 100th international century.

However, today, the last day of the series, they managed arguably their best session since arriving in England. Tendulkar and the nightwatchman Mishra batted through until lunch. It looked like India may be able to bat out a draw, and that Sachin would finally succeed and score that century everyone wanted to see. Mishra made it to 84 in the afternoon session, also looking like he was headed towards a century. But then he missed one from Swann that went on to hit the stumps. He had played so well up to this point that it came as a bit of a surprise. It was the beginning of the end for India.

Tendulkar, although not as fluent as he could be, was getting back to his best, looking like the player he is. He was giving chances however; England had dropped two catches he had offered. Then, on 91, he was struck on the pads by Bresnan. England appealed. Umpire Tucker raised his finger. England were ecstatic; India fans heartbroken. Sachin had come so close, and the crowd were waiting for history to be made. Hawkeye replays showed that, although if DRS was available it wouldn't have been overturned, the ball was just clipping the top of leg stump. A very brave decision indeed. It just wasn't to be for Tendulkar this time, though with the ODIs coming in the next few weeks he will have a good opportunity to reach his landmark.

India were now five down, and after such a long partnership between Tendulkar and Mishra being broken, England were on the up. Raina, after a duck in the first innings, was soon sent back with a pair. Replays showed he got an edge on his LBW but he could not review it. Broad struck twice in an over soon after to dismiss Dhoni and RP Singh. England were two wickets away from another innings victory and a 4-0 whitewash. Swann, so quiet all series on unfriendly pitches, finally was in perfect conditions and was looking as dangerous as ever. It was fitting that he took the last two wickets in a series when all bowlers have been successful. He soon picked them up: Gambhir for 3, Sreesanth for 6. He finished with figures of 6-106 to go with his three wickets in the first innings, and had won the match for England. India had gone from 262-3 to 283 all out, and England had proved why they were top of the world rankings.

So England have done it! At the start of the summer it seemed like a distant dream, and at the beginning of the series it looked like England were facing one of the biggest challenges of their careers. Nobody expected it to be this easy. India have had their troubles this series - injuries to key players such as Khan, Sehwag and Harbhajan certainly haven't helped them - but when compared to England it looks like some serious work needs to be done. Players have lacked fitness - perhaps playing in the IPL for the last few years has taken its toll. They've lacked match practice - a series in the West Indies just a couple of weeks before without some key players has tired some and left others unprepared. They needed more time in English conditions before the series to get used to the ball swinging and seaming around. The fielding looked in need of improvement, even accepting that older members in the team would not be so mobile. Dhoni's keeping hasn't been up to standard and can't have filled the players with confidence. And just to top it, the bowling - England have scored first innings totals of 474, 710, and 591 with a second innings score of 544 in the other test. Where England have almost endless strength in depth in this area, India have very little. Even in spin bowling, India's traditional strength, they were not up to standard - Harbhajan struggled whilst Mishra was ineffectual. Bad luck didn't help India, but neither did their preparation.

What next for England? Well, winning at home is one thing, but winning in the subcontinent is something else. To establish themselves as the number one team they will have to beat India in India, an opportunity they get next winter. This winter they will be playing Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who will provide them with the sort of conditions to expect for the challenge. Next year South Africa will be touring England, again giving them an opportunity to play against the second ranked (possibly first by this point) team in the world. South Africa have a bowling attack better suited to English conditions, and so it will be a tough test for England. Beating South Africa away will also be a tough challenge, although it will be a while until they tour there again. England can be very proud in their achievements so far, but must not rest. The chasers will become the chased and over the next year they will have to stay on the top of their game.

But all that's a long way away, so for now let's just celebrate the fact that England are officially the best test team in the world, and have just completed a brilliant and thoroughly deserved 4-0 series win.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

On Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, and the failures of the Indian batting lineup.

Saturday, 20 August 2011
All went smoothly in the test today for England, except perhaps the weather. Rain forced Andrew Strauss into making *shock horror* an attacking declaration (relatively speaking, they were still almost 600 runs ahead) and then India were five down by the end of the day. Pretty darn good then.

Ian Bell brought up his double century before too long in the morning, smoothly making it from 199 to 203 with a nice boundary. Three years ago, when he got his previous highest test score, it was 'typical Ian Bell' not to make it up to the double century, but he has improved so much as a player since then that it was never in any doubt. Back then he was the player who'd make runs when the team were doing well, looking pretty but crumbling under pressure. Now his technique is as pretty as ever - his classic late cut being particularly beautiful - but he has added the mindset needed to be a top player and to bat in tough situations, as well as appearing to have cracked the number three spot where he has underperformed in the past.

This brings me to Ravi Bopara, the 'old Ian Bell'. I like Bopara, I find him entertaining and he's fun to watch, but man he is frustrating. He definitely has the talent to succeed, and has been working hard to try and do so, but mentally it hasn't clicked for him yet. It's unfortunate that he's come into the team in a lose-lose situation - his main rival Eoin Morgan scored a century immediately before he came in to bat in the last test, and the man he's replacing is one of England's most successful batsmen of the past year. So if he fails, he can't win a place and if he scores runs, well everyone else in the team has before him. Today though, Morgan was out for one and so Bopara had a chance. After struggling at first - getting off strike with a streaky two - he did get better and made his way to 44* before rain triggered a declaration from Strauss. It may not be a world-beating innings - we've already had Pietersen and Bell before him - but it will show to him and the selectors that he can still compete at this level. He's unlikely to replace Morgan yet however, and will still be in close contention with James Taylor for the place as back up batsman. It's one thing to score runs when there's already 500 on the board but when you're struggling at 30-3 it's different. So it's a start, but he's still got a way to do to prove he deserves a regular spot, but more batting competition around the team can only be a good thing - just look at the pace attack.

Once again India's magnificent batting line up failed. Sehwag, still in desperate need of match practice, lasted longer than in the previous match, but only by five balls before falling to Anderson. Gambhir was out with concussion after nastily hitting his head attempting a catch yesterday, and so not available to bat. Laxman, normally a fighter, also fell early. Tendulkar seemed distracted throughout his innings, holding up play because of issues such as the reflection of a steward's badge. It was the sign of a man out of form. Maybe the 99 centuries is affecting him, it's such a huge landmark that may never be repeated, but he soon fell to Swann. Raina seemed to forget about scoring runs and just focused on not getting out. Not a good ploy. Swann dismissed him for a 29-ball duck. The nightwatchman Ishant Sharma also went before the end of the day. Dravid as ever remained fighting, still in on 57* on the end of the day. Dhoni was also in at the end after finding form in the past test through luck rather than anything. They are two batsmen to be showing any sign of form, so let's hope they can keep on battling for a while in this test for cricket's sake. Because the way things are going for England, it could easily be all over tomorrow.
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