Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The clouds lift

Wednesday, 16 November 2016
Coming away from Bangladesh, it was difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel for England. They had collapsed within a session, confidence was shattered, and with the tour of India starting the next week it was easy to predict a 5-0 outcome. Defeats can be contagious after all, and it can be difficult to find a way out of a rut. But in Rajkot they broke down that wall and came bursting out of the other side.

It started by winning the toss, and batting. And then, how they batted. There was no 21/3, 62/5, 69/5, the positions that put England at a disadvantage when playing Bangladesh (though when they did have a good start, things didn't go so well either). England needed one of their leading batsmen to step up, and Joe Root was up to the challenge. A stand of 179 with Moeen Ali put them in a strong position, and things just got better from there. Root's 124 was that sort of tone-setting innings that he so often delivers in the first match of the series, and also the first by a visiting batsman in India since early 2013. And it wouldn't be the only one. His partner in that key stand, Moeen Ali, made 117; whilst Ben Stokes added a further 128 as England capitalised on a strong position. Little over a week earlier it was hard to look beyond the despair of collapsing in a session; but now England had posted 537 and had three centurions in a single innings.

But India settled in too, and the struggle for wickets would be a long one. The partnership between Root and Moeen was more than matched when Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara put on 209 for the second wicket, the pair both making centuries of their own. England had made an imposing total, but India came close to matching it, and batting for 162 overs in their total of 488. A sign of things to come, perhaps? India's batsmen will be hard to break down, yet it wasn't always easy for them to score against England either; a true test for both sides. Eventually though, the wickets did fall - eight going down to the spinners, and four of those to Adil Rashid with his best performance yet in the test arena. 70 from Ravi Ashwin helped India to 488, just 49 runs behind. A draw looked the most likely result, but there was just enough reason for both sides to think they might have an outside chance with four sessions to go.

On that fourth evening, England did all they could to extinguish India's hopes of a win. And that was down to two men, Alastair Cook and Haseeb Hameed - his latest opening partner, and his youngest one yet. And yes, he is just nineteen, but he certainly looked the part. A case of 'if you're good enough, you're old enough' if ever there was one. His 31 in the first innings had already been enough to get people excited, but a second innings 82 did it even more. His temperament was what impressed the most, always looking assured and unflustered, not hurried or nervous. There was even a six, hit straight back over the bowler's head; already looking more than just the 'Baby Boycott'. There will be the risk of too much pressure being put on him too young, of him being hailed by a savior before he even reaches twenty. He cannot be called the solution after just one test. But maybe he's the most exciting answer we've had so far.

For Alastair Cook, it was his 55th test as captain - the most by any Englishman. He celebrated with his 30th test century, and England's fourth of the match. Conservatism is a word often used when describing his captaincy, and maybe this was another case in point, the opening pair scoring slower in the morning than they had the night before, despite having ten wickets in hand and a chance to set a target. Maybe they could have scored faster - when Stokes came in at four, he scored at a run a ball - and maybe he could have declared earlier. But sometimes these things are easier said than done, better in theory than in practice. Even with a pitch that didn't seem to have any major demons, free scoring hadn't always been all that straightforward; and it hadn't been all that simple for the bowlers first time out either. A lower total might have tempted India and brought more chance of a result; but it was a risk England would always be unlikely to take in the first match of a five game series. I agree that with declarations Cook could generally take more risks, but this time out I'd give him the benefit of the doubt.

As it turned out, England did manage six wickets, but the resistance of the captain Virat Kohli (49*) alongside Ashwin (32) and Jadeja (32*) saw India to safety. England's spinners were in the wickets again, with three more falling for Adil Rashid. Their performance will have been encouraging for England, and though none are the finished article, the signs are there that they are learning on the job as the long tour of the subcontinent continues. Rashid will still veer between periods where he frustrates and ones where he produces gold, but he showed that the gold is worth waiting for. The more the spinners bowl, the better they will get. I can be as guilty as any in wanting the instant result, but it's a waiting game. And here it was paying off.

What can England expect in the rest of the series? The pitches are likely to be better suited to India, offering more for the spinners than in Rajkot. But England will be boosted too as their talisman returns in James Anderson, a key figure in that famous 2012 victory. It's a hard call to see who he will replace, be it a pace bowler in Woakes or Broad or the spin of Zafar Ansari (though a 3/3 seam/spin mix might look a better option). Importantly, in Rajkot England showed they are no pushovers, and will provide a contest for India. The doom and gloom has lifted. Keep up the good work and there will be a contest.

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