Were England careless or strategically insane?
England, sticklers for tradition as always, have lost the first Test of a series in Asia for the 14th time in their last 20 attempts, dating back to the 1981-82 series in India. They have registered three wins - against Test novices Sri Lanka in their first-ever Test, and two against incorrigible defeat-magnets Bangladesh ‒ meaning that, in their last 17 first Tests of away series against established Asian Test nations, they have drawn three and lost 14. And one of those three draws was with one wicket remaining after a desperate tail-end rearguard. When they go to Asia, England hit the ground running. In the wrong direction.
The good news for England and their supporters is that, in all their other non-series-opening Asian Tests in that time, they have won more than they have lost. Nine triumphs (including two follow-up cloutings of Bangladesh), seven defeats, and 19 draws. The bad news is that two of those defeats are fresh in the memory from early this year, against a Pakistan side with a similarly structured bowling attack to India's.
The other good news is that two of England's batsmen have shown that they can prosper in Asian conditions, which is at least two more than in the UAE. The other bad news is that the English pace attack, which remained steadfastly excellent throughout last winter's failures, was as toothless as an 103-year-old chocolate addict after an ill-advised 12-round pummelling by one of the Klitschko brothers. The supplementary good news is that, whilst the wheels might have come off the English wagon, at least their captain heroically curled himself up into a circle and bolted himself to the front axle. Seldom can a new skipper have emerged from the wreckage of a thrashing in his first match in the job with his authority so significantly enhanced. If only he could learn how to bowl. And field at slip to the spinners.
The additional bad news is that the Indian selectors, and the unstoppable march of time, have largely dismantled the team England completely destroyed just over a year ago. They have even replaced their solitary success in that series, Rahul Dravid, with a new No. 3, Cheteshwar Pujara, who looks as if he could be carrying on batting until Silvio Berlusconi becomes a monk. The bonus good news is that they will have to try hard to field as poorly again. The free extra bad news is that Jonathan Trott's audacious attempt to take a catch in his pioneering new leather-magnetic concave chest that enables him to roost on the ball like an egg without it actually touching the turf was hardly ruled out by the umpires.
Appendix 1 of the good news is that they are unlikely to be on the wrong end of so many dubious umpiring decisions in the second Test. The bad-news footnote is that they are also unlikely to be on the right end of so many dubious umpiring decisions. Cook's near-flawless epic resistance could easily have been flawed and not particularly epic, had he not survived a leg-before appeal when on 41 that looked plumb enough to bake in a misspelt crumble. Samit Patel, the commentators agreed, was harshly triggered in both innings. But he only had the opportunity to be harshly triggered in the first innings because he had already been very generously not triggered. Two wrongs did not make a right. They made three wrongs - the two decisions, plus the absence of the DRS.
Until Cook and Matt Prior's superb and highly skilled partnership, this game went as badly for England as any Australian could have hoped. If the batsmen had learned any lesson from last winter's tweak-induced travails, that lesson appeared to be: "Keep doing the same thing, the laws of physics might have changed."
The seam attack still seemed mentally exhausted and scarred by their surgical dismemberment by Smith, Amla and Kallis at The Oval. Virender Sehwag, for the first time in a long time, transformed a Test match that had hardly even begun, sowing immediate seeds of doubt in England's attack, which grew rapidly in the unresponsive Ahmedabad soil into a beanstalk of impotent frustration. Stuart Broad appealed imploringly for ljafiafbbw (leg just a few inches away from being before wicket). He took 25 wickets in four Tests against India last year, followed by 26 more in his next five matches. It is perhaps understandable that he looked as exasperated as Jimi Hendrix trying to play "Hey Joe" on an aubergine.
After Pujara had finished smoothly Amla-ing them to a fine paste, England compounded their problems with the bat, by continuing to hope that the stiff prod would somehow turn into an effective match-winning anti-spin ploy. It has not done so. Yet. Cook and Prior seemed to be turning to a Plan B on day four, with considerable success. Kevin Pietersen seemed to go through plans C to Z in the space of 24 balls.
Pragyan Ojha bowled mesmerically in the first innings, against a mesmerism-vulnerable batting line-up. So mesmerically, in fact, that he seemed to befuddle his own captain, who let him bowl only eight balls of the last 17.2 overs of the innings, in which time the Bhubaneswar Befuddler still managed to take two wickets, but England at least established a small batting foothold in the match.
From this foothold, they at least clambered up to base camp on the mountain they have given themselves to climb before being conclusively turfed off it on the final day. But England have some crumbs of comfort left over from their failure fajita to push around their plate until Friday's second Test, whilst India might have some droplets of doubt swilling around in their glass after guzzling a decanter of dominance. It will help England's cause if they do not play dismally for the first three days. India have lost none of the 38 home Tests in which they have scored 500 in the first innings. England have lost all six of the Tests in India in which they have failed to reach 200 in their first innings. Conceding 521 for 8, then being bowled out for 191, was careless. Or strategically insane. Probably the former.
● As with most England matches ‒ whether he has played in them or not ‒ there was considerable discussion of Pietersen, a cricketer who attracts debate like a grated seal smeared in blood ketchup attracts sharks. Pietersen returned to the side after his recent suspension for being the dominant slice in an infantile dressing-room bicker sandwich to compose the latest movement of his Barking Mad 2012 Symphony ‒ an in-depth and perfectly executed exploration of how not to play spin, of which the most remarkable aspect was that he was only out twice in the 43 balls of tweak that he failed to negotiate.
In mitigation, Pietersen was unlucky in the first innings. Very unlucky. Up until the late 18th century, there was no middle stump, and the ball that dismissed him would have passed harmlessly through to the wicketkeeper. Perhaps he had fallen asleep the previous night midway through a documentary about the American War of Independence, and was momentarily confused over what century it was.
In his previous Test in Asia, just seven months ago in Colombo, Pietersen powerclobbered 162 runs from 142 balls of spin, including seven sixes and 15 fours. In the match before his Twitter-aggravated ban, at Headingley, he played one of the finest innings by an England batsman in recent years, spectacularly flaying a dominant South Africa. He batted in Ahmedabad as if he has spent the intervening three months sleeping in a tumble-dryer. At Headingley and Galle, he played shots other players would not even have dreamed of playing. In Ahmedabad he played shots other players would not even have dreamed of playing.
Pietersen averages 38 in Tests this year - to date, the only year since his 2005 debut in which he has averaged below 40. He has played two of his best-ever Test innings, had comfortably his worst-ever series, suffered some of his most costly dismissals, been out for less than 5 on a personal-worst five occasions in a single year, reached double figures in a personal-best 12 consecutive innings, played two of his best-ever ODI innings, retired, unretired, was sacked, was recalled, has been implicated in the John F Kennedy hit, and revealed himself as the true author of Tolstoy's platinum-selling smash-hit novel War and Peace.
It has, in summary, been an interesting year for Pietersen. He has slalomed in his characteristically unfathomable way between peaks of peerless brilliance and troughs of painful cluelessness, like the non-existent 1950s German javelin thrower Gecko Clawhammer, who, with successive throws, smashed the world record and speared himself in the foot, then, despite being fastened immovably to the turf and surrounded by paramedics, broke the world record again, before skewering himself in the eye whilst shouting: "I want to be a kebab." He remains a glorious cocktail of contradictions, flawed and fascinating, a one-man dramatic masterpiece.
And finally, some stats:
● Abdur Rehman, Rangana Herath and Ojha have collectively taken 47 wickets at 17.5 in England's six overseas Tests this year, with six five-wicket hauls between them. In England's previous 57 Tests abroad, from 2002 to 2011, left-arm spinners had taken 94 wickets at an average of 49. However, crucially, in those ten winters, the only left-arm slow bowlers from the three major Asian nations that England faced were the left-hand fast batsmen Yuvraj and Sanath Jayasuriya (8 wickets between them, average 32).
● The Ahmedabad Test was only the fourth ever in which there have been seven or more different opening bowlers. It happened in the first-ever Test match, in 1876-77, then only twice more in the intervening 2056 games (including the India-England Kanpur Test of 1951-52, the only instance of the full house of eight different opening bowlers), before James Anderson, Broad, R Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav, Ojha, Anderson again, and Swann took the shiny new conker at the Sardar Patel Stadium.
I am coming out to India for the second and third Tests. Thank you, ESPNcricinfo. I will be writing daily blogs and doing some World Cricket Podcasts. Whilst there, I will also be doing a few stand-up gigs. For anyone interested in coming to them, I will post details on my @ZaltzCricket twitter feed, and at thebuglepodcast.com.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer