July 11, 2018

The England v India T20I series we needed (heck, deserved)

It had great batting, great wristspin, golden-duck stumpings, and a catch of planetary proportions

Witch way will it turn: Jonny Bairstow is put under a spell by Kuldeep Yadav © Getty Images

Many T20 international series live short in the memory. A brief splurge of schedule-filling thwackery, lacking the narrative interest of a franchise league, with no evident connection to the broader canvas of international cricket, they are a passing diversion, a bag of sweets at a motorway service station, whose packet will be found under the passenger's seat in 18 months' time. "Yes, I think I remember eating them. Was it on the M4 on the way back from a romantic trip to see the new roadworks near junction 14?"

The England-India series, by contrast, was a sumptuous soufflé of rivalry-renewing, scene-setting, appetite-tingling sporting contest. It was a minor classic in itself, and a perfect prelude to the longer-format series to come, baked in sunshine, sold out, and sprinkled with some luminous cricketing brilliance.

India's cricket blended the hyper-modern skills of the T20 era with old-school echoes of cricket's past - batsmanship of classical style and Trumperian élan, wristspin bamboozlements (Kuldeep's five-wicket haul was the first by a left-arm wristspinner against England since Chuck Fleetwood-Smith was befuddling Gubby Allen's team in the 1936-37 Ashes), and, to please the hardcore nostalgists, some thoroughly retro fielding bloopers.

England made blazing starts at Old Trafford and Bristol, fired by Jos Buttler's stroke-concocting genius and the crisp pummellings of Jason Roy, but subsided into middle-over confusion against the Indian bowlers' carnage-restricting craft. England had played only 14 T20Is in the 27 months since they brilliantly won 97.5% of the World T20 final against West Indies in Kolkata, and, at times, it showed. They were excellent with the ball in Cardiff, but without early wickets in the other matches, were weaponless, and the better, more flexible, more T20-hardened team deservedly won.

A couple of two-ball periods of cricket stood out in particular (I am reliably informed that the minimum span for a "phase" of cricketing play has been officially reduced by the ICC to two balls). At Old Trafford, Kuldeep twirled out a pair of droolingly tempting googlies, their flight so bewitching that had he delivered them in the 17th century, he would have been dunked in a pond or burned at the stake. Bairstow and Root, stumped for golden ducks - even in the age of compulsory hyperbole, this was as close as cricket comes to something genuinely unbelievable.

To illustrate quite how extraordinary this was, it was the first occasion in the entire history of international cricket - in all formats, men's and women's - that two top-seven batsmen had been stumped for nought in the same innings. Let alone for golden ducks, off successive deliveries.

Furthermore, it was Bairstow's first first-baller in 157 innings for England in all formats, and only the second time in 258 innings that Root had gilded the mallard. Furtherfurthermore, both batsmen had previously been stumped only three times each in international cricket. In terms of probability, therefore, while it may not quite rank alongside Monty Panesar smiting a match-winning run-a-ball double-century to win the Ashes, or Inzamam-ul-Haq winning an Olympic gold in the pole vault, or the ICC coming up with a satisfactory format for a World Cup, it was among the more outlandish things seen on a cricket field.

Drunk on cricket: a cocktail of great weather, full houses, and an engaging contest between bat and ball © Getty Images

The second of the two-ball micro-epics came in Bristol, in the sixth over of India's chase. They had already made a dazzling start to their pursuit of 199 to win, with four sixes and six fours in the first five overs, when Jake Ball bowled a very-mildly-short-of-length delivery to KL Rahul, who relocated the ball into the upper rows of the deep-square leg grandstand with a shot of almost illegal grandeur and time-suspending ease. Once the traumatised leather had been returned from its majestic arc into the crowd, Ball dropped his pace to draw a mistimed launch from Rahul, which sent the ball flickering into the consciousness of Bristol airport's air-traffic-control tower and towards an unoccupied area of the ground. This area swiftly became occupied by Chris Jordan, who took an over-the-shoulder catch (difficult) while sprinting (difficult) and diving full-length (difficult) as the ball plummeted from an idiotic height (difficult). Difficult4.

At this point, the umpires should have stopped the game for five minutes, so that everyone could have a little time to think about what they had just witnessed, two glittering examples of the broadened horizons of cricketing possibility in the modern age.

Jordan's catch ought to be replayed on a giant TV screen at the start of all future United Nations General Assembly sessions just to show the world's leaders what is feasible on this planet. His one-man masterpiece of judgement and athleticism did not prove to be the turning point that England craved, however, as Rohit Sharma smoothblasted India to victory, aided by another surgical (if surprisingly curtailed) chase innings by Kohli. India's skipper has now batted 25 times in the second innings of T20Is. His lowest score is 16, he has passed 50 in 12 innings, scored over 40 in three more, and has participated in 19 successful Indian chases (India, since September 2012, have won 24 of 32 T20Is in which they have batted second).

In those 19 victories, Kohli has scored 904 runs - an average contribution of 47.5 per innings (with 11 not-outs, his conventional average, for whatever that is worth in T20 cricket, is 113). Of the 128 batsmen who have batted in five or more successful T20I chases, Kohli's runs-per-innings figure is second only to Alex Hales - 574 runs in 12 winning chases for England (47.8 per innings) - who leapfrogged him with his 58-run role in England's Cardiff victory, a well-constructed atonement for his eczematically scratchy 8 off 18 balls in Manchester, the joint second-slowest 18-ball sequence by an England batsman in T20I history.

England have won just seven of 17 matches since Carlos Brathwaite edged the last 2.5% of that World T20 final (without even having to use the final 33% of that 2.5%). They are overstocked with top-order batsmen (as are most T20 sides, given that top-order batsmen are the only ones who have the opportunity to post apparently successful conventional statistics). Unless they send in four men to open, hidden in pairs in pantomime cow outfits, there is no obvious solution.

Chris Jordan: let's get him a superhero movie, already © Getty Images

At Old Trafford, and against Australia at Edgbaston, Bairstow and Root came in at Nos. 5 and 6, towards the end of England's innings. Prior to that, Root had not batted outside the top four in any T20 match since 2013, and had come to the crease before the halfway point in 22 of his 23 T20I innings. Bairstow had begun an innings after the 11th over of a T20 game just once since 2012. (To add to their difficulties, Root had played just eight T20 matches since his outstanding performances in the 2016 World T20, and Bairstow had batted seven times in all T20 cricket since July 2015.)

After his Old Trafford duck, Bairstow adapted well to his unfamiliar later-overs role (28 off 18, and 25 off 14), but England were, in essence, asking Beethoven to write a disco hit for Sister Sledge. The self-styled Sangakkara of the Sonata could probably make a decent fist of it, but equally, it might take him a little while to crack the correct groove.

This series was a blueprint for how international T20 cricket should be in between global tournaments. Two full-strength teams, in a series long enough to undulate and evolve, scheduled in concert with the longer formats.

The ODI series now allows England to return to their best form of the game. They have obliterated some moderate opposition in their recent home series. Both sides are missing their best ODI pacers (Chris Woakes and Jasprit Bumrah). Both were undone by Pakistan when looking like potential winners at last year's Champions Trophy. England have a deeper batting line-up and are (collectively if not individually) more explosive; how they fare against Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep will probably decide the series. With a Test series to follow, and a World Cup looming less than a year away, the cricket should be spectacular, and will be fascinating.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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