England in India 2012-13 December 7, 2012

India show how it shouldn't be done

And debating the impregnability of Alastair Cook

Things You Should Try To Avoid Doing Early On The Second Afternoon Of A Test Match, Number 1: When fielding at slip, after your team has posted an inadequate first-innings total, and with a rampantly in-form run-machine facing your primary pace bowler early in his innings, drop a straightforward catch.

Cheteshwar Pujara has not had a good match so far. He followed his first-day failures, clean bowled by Panesar, with a fielding blooper of disastrous consequence yesterday. With Cook already settling with ominous care, the one Indian to have advanced his reputation so far this series shelled a low but relatively simple catch, when the England skipper edged during a fine spell by Zaheer.

The reaction of the Indian players and crowd - a disappointedly irritated wheeze, as if they had just accidentally dropped their great aunt's ashes into the pancake mixture at her funeral (rendered even worse by the fact that she had suffered from a lifelong flour allergy) ‒ suggested that everyone in Eden Gardens knew that Cook would now inevitably score a large, untroubled and subsequently-chanceless century.

This he did with alarming ease, perfect shot-selection, and an impregnable authority, as India meekly subsided with some minimal-intensity cricket. This Indian team is unlikely to feature in too many Greatest Fielding Units Of The 21st Century documentaries, and they appeared resigned to what they seemed to accept as their fate as soon as the great-aunt-ash-fumbling shock had subsided.

Over the last 18 months, Dhoni's team have been embarrassingly easily deflated in the field in Test matches. Yesterday's play was reminiscent of the 2011 series, when they often seemed to be doing little more to force the fall of a wicket than hoping that the batsmen would be so relaxed by the lack of pressure being applied on them, that they would hallucinate that there was a poisonous anaconda crawling up their middle stump, and try to thwack it off with their bats. The hit-snakewicket dismissals have not materialised, however, partly because their opponents have maintained their concentration, and partly because anacondas are not poisonous, so even in the event of the hallucination being successfully provoked, the batsmen would correctly write it off as a figment to be ignored.

Dhoni again did little to try to force errors from the batsmen. Compton began his innings defiantly but strokelessly, offering nothing to the bowlers and even less to the spectator. When he had scored 10 off 47 balls, he was facing Zaheer - with a deep backward point. Had Dhoni seen something in the Somerset Sedative's demeanour that suggested he was about to unleash an upper-cut for six, or try to reserve sweep India's lead pacer over the fence?

Maybe he had. In which case, the strategy worked. Compton did not attempt to upper-cut or reverse sweep Zaheer for six. So, in hindsight, it was clearly tactically sound. Although it did not immediately appear so at the time.

When a previously-hideously-out-of-form Trott came to the wicket late in the day, he was not greeted by a ring of close catchers trying to prey on the doubts that were so patent in his previous innings in the series. Granted, this was the first time this series he had come in to bat with England in a position of dominance, but he must have been delighted to face a field of one slip, a short leg, and a ring of bizarrely-placed fielders set too deep to save the single. Trott also resisted the temptation to chip a ball half-way to the boundary.

Cook, meanwhile, is the kind of ice-hearted batsman to take full toll of such generosity. In current form, expecting him to give more than one chance to a fielding side is like waiting for the Pope to moon the crowd in St Peter's Square. It is not going to happen.

He (Cook, not the Pope) now tops the list of Most Test Hundreds By An England Player. Such landmarks are of academic interest, given the vastly increased amount of cricket played by Cook's generation compared to some of the men he has overtaken, and the increased frequency with which hundreds are scored - 2.04 per Test since 2000, 23% higher than the 1.65 per Test scored between 1945 and 1999. Of more relevance is the fact that he is in the middle of one of the purplest patches an England batsman has ever enjoyed, playing with a technical certainty that escaped him earlier in his career, a range of shots that means he can score at a good rate whilst primarily playing defensively, and an authority that suggests that he will establish himself as one of England's all-time cricketing greats, as well as the statistical phenomenon he has already become. That said, in England's two toughest series of the last two years since he found form in Australia, he failed in the UAE against Pakistan, and, after a superb first-day-of-the-series century, at home against South Africa. He is not impregnable. But India are making him look so, with bowling that is as toothless as an orange, and fielding with the fervour of a long-forgotten boiled lettuce.

All the while, the patient Eden Gardens crowd roared adequate pieces of fielding as if they had just seen someone juggled ten piranhas without getting bitten even once, and generously, loudly, applauded England's players. The support given by the spectators in the crowd to the 11 spectators on the field hinted at the atmosphere that could be created if India find a way to break the back of the England batting this morning. On yesterday's evidence, that is looking like an industrially-sized 'if', but it is not inconceivable.

More aggressive and inventive tactics in the field yesterday might have made a difference. They might not have made a difference. We will never know.

Some stats:

Ashwin stat: R Ashwin bowled at Cook with the air of a man who suspected strongly that he would not be unleashing his new personal wicket celebration any time soon. Since inducing a misjudged cut in the first innings of the series, he has now bowled 58.2 overs at England's bulwark, and taken his wicket once, for a total of 167 runs. And that once was after Cook had already completed his Mumbai century.

Cook, however, is the nearest thing Ashwin has to a 'bunny' in England's top order. Since the first innings in Ahmedabad, he is the only top-seven batsman the offspinner has dismissed. In 639 balls, 1 for 329 off 106.3 overs are his figures against England's top seven in the last four innings. Which is not ideal.

Ishant stat: Ishant Sharma bowled creditably but wicketlessly, and looked as confident as you would expect a bowler to be who has not taken more than two wickets in any of his previous nine Tests. In those games, he reaped the meagre harvest of 12 wickets at 87.

Cook stat: England's new standalone record century maker, against all teams other than Bangladesh and West Indies, November 2006 to October 2010: 36 matches, average 33, 4 centuries (out of 18 50-plus scores), highest score 118. Since the start of the Ashes in November 2010, against the same opposition: 23 matches, average 73, 10 centuries (out of 16 50-plus scores), including four scores over 175 (with the likelihood of another today).

Another Cook stat: By the close of day one, Cook has scored 82 of his 136 runs in boundaries - 60% - and scored at a strike rate of 57. Both of these figures are currently the highest he has recorded in any of the 21 centuries he has scored against countries other than Bangladesh.

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

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