Thursday, 31 July 2014

That winning feeling

Thursday, 31 July 2014
On August 12th, 2013, England wrapped up a 74-run victory over Australia in Durham to take a 3-0 lead in the Ashes series with a match to play. England were flying high; they had easily beaten Australia without even reaching their best in the series, what could they inflict over the winter when they really found their form? Yet nearly a year on, after ten test matches of near misses, a bore draw, and ever-more dismal defeats, England finally have recorded their next victory in this longest format, and in emphatic fashion.

It was a dramatic turnaround. Seeing England just over a week ago it was difficult to see a way up and out of such a mess. The senior players had again failed to deliver, Cook as captain looked close to breaking point, and the batting had collapsed on the final day in a procession of failed hook shots. In short, in ideal conditions, they were beaten at their own game. At Southampton it was almost like seeing a different team, one that followed the script they would have hoped to at the start of this 'new era' - the experienced players leading the way whilst the new boys also made their mark. From the first day, even the first session, England put themselves ahead in the game and - unlike so many times in the past ten matches - they were not going to let their hold slip. After amassing a grand total in their first innings with the aid of Bell and Cook, England's senior bowlers then proved their worth with the ball. India's batsmen made starts but the wickets fell regularly - seven batsmen passed 20 but none passed 60, and eight of the wickets were shared by Anderson and Broad, Anderson topping it off with a five-wicket haul on his 32nd birthday. After Plunkett and Stokes missed out on this test, support came from Woakes, who bowled well but unluckily went wicketless; Jordan, looking off colour on his return; and Ali, used in a more attacking role and finding his reward with two wickets. India were all out for 330 - no dramatic last wicket stands here - and with a lead of 239, England could start to dream of victory. After a quick hit with the bat - adding 205 from 40.4 overs thanks to fifties from Cook and Root - England set India 445 to win the game, or rather themselves four sessions to bowl India out.

They only needed two. Anderson, Broad, and Woakes bowled tightly with the new ball, but the early breakthrough they needed came with the run out of Vijay - so often a thorn in England's side so far this series. Then came the spinners, and they delivered. Moeen Ali was further backed by Cook and was brought on earlier, finding his reward with the wickets of Pujara and Kohli, whilst Joe Root's occasional spin did for Dhawan. India were four down by the close of play. England struck early again when the morning came, both Sharma and Dhoni being caught behind off Anderson for 6. Rahane, unbeaten on 52, proved the only man to resist on the final morning as Ali shone for England, wiping out India's lower order and finishing with his maiden test five wicket haul - a total of six for 67. India were dismissed before lunch for 178; finally England were victorious, and for many in the team it was their first taste of a test match win.

The contrast in Alastair Cook's post match interviews from the past two test matches couldn't have been any more different; an almost broken man a week ago was happier in every respect after contributions with the bat and captaining the side well across the five days. Cook has always been a 'lead from the front' style captain, England doing best when he gets runs, but there were also several points that could be noted as signs of better leadership. One of these was less reliance upon the pair of Anderson and Broad: Woakes was given the ball ahead of Broad at the start of the third day, rewarding Woakes for his efforts whilst also geeing up Broad to do more. He utilised Moeen Ali much more effectively, having previously been rather hesitant to turn to him but here giving him the backing to perform as a frontline spinner in good conditions, and reaping the rewards. The spinning question has been one of the hot topics of debate in English cricket this summer; it was good to see someone starting to provide an answer. Ali had suffered from being seen merely as an occasional bowler, someone to pick up the odd wicket here and there, but in this match proved himself much more than that. Though its not time to get hopes up too far, bowling out one of the best teams at playing spin is no mean feat and shows he does have a role to play at international level.

Progress, then, for Cook and England, hopefully showing a corner turned. The next match comes a week today at Old Trafford, where Plunkett could return to the side for a ground known for his pace and bounce; Anderson could be the man out depending on the outcome of his disciplinary hearing after the incident with Jadeja at Trent Bridge. England are on the up and with the series level at 1-1 and two matches to go, all is left to play for once again. 

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