England in India 2012-13 December 18, 2012

The Nagpur slab of compacted disappointment

An anti-climax of epic proportions

England wrapped up a deserved series win in Nagpur in what was effectively reduced to a three-Test series by an abomination of a pitch that produced a match of unremitting, merciless tedium. It reached even that level of intrigue only thanks to some delusional umpiring and a few careless pieces of batting that can be safely attributed to the players temporarily having the will to live sucked from their souls by a surface with all the vitality of a fossilised brick, 22 yards of cricketing mausoleum upon which the groundsman should have daubed the words, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here", or, at the very least, "I Hate Cricket". Why he did not do so remains a mystery that may never be adequately explained.

It would have taken a superhuman effort of sustained incompetence for either side to lose this match. Neither side obliged, and, amidst one of the most anticlimactic conclusions to a sporting event imaginable, England gained significant consolation at the end of a disappointing year.

Alastair Cook's captaincy tenure has thus begun with an impressive individual and collective triumph. England recovered from a woeful start, and ruthlessly exposed and exploited the seismic faultlines in the Indian team that were apparent in their humiliations in England and Australia last year, and could not be camouflaged by home advantage. Cook's personal performance was monumental. His century in defeat in the first Test turned the momentum of the series, his hundreds in the second and third Tests ground down and dispirited an increasingly pallid opposition. The skill, craft and persistence of Panesar, Swann and Anderson, and the Mumbai magic of Pietersen, overwhelmed the home team, whose faint hopes of rescuing a drawn series were scuppered by that Nagpur slab of compacted disappointment, which offered nothing to bowlers, batsmen, spectators, commentators, sponsors, men, women, children, the elderly, the living, the dead, or anyone with belief in the existence of a benevolent god.

It was one of the worst Test matches of recent vintage. The match run rate was 2.27 per over, the second slowest of the 525 Test matches played since April 2001.

Only a late flurry of runs, when even the minimal pressure India had been able to impose had long since dissipated in the inevitability of a draw, raised it past the 2.25 per over of the Bangladesh v New Zealand Test in Chittagong in 2008-09, a game which had the decency to provide 37 wickets and a tight, low-scoring contest that ended with the Kiwis chasing down 317 to win by three wickets. The overall run rate in those 525 Tests is 3.26.

Bowlers struck on average once every 120 balls, the 19th worst match strike-rate of the 585 Tests since January 2000 which have lasted for at least 90 overs. The average strike rate in all Tests in that time is a wicket every 66 balls. So in the average recent Test, runs are scored almost 50% more quickly, and wickets taken almost twice as often, as happened in Nagpur.

The interminable drudgery was not helped by a soporific over-rate, plodding along at around the mandatory 15 over per hour despite fewer than a quarter of the overs being bowled by pacemen, or the innumerable needless interruptions that have been allowed to proliferate, or by the fact that England had no need to take the initiative, and India no apparent urge or ability to do so. Their batting at the start of day four was bafflingly pointless. And they then helped Cook set what must surely be yet another record - the first batsman in cricket history to have three men defending the legside boundary after scoring 12 off 90 balls.

There was some good batting, some decent bowling, particularly by Anderson, and some fine fielding, but it is hard to imagine cricket greyer than this. (We should remember how lucky we are that this kind of match is now exceptional rather than normal. The overall scoring rate in Tests in the 1950s was 2.30, and, from 1933 when the first Test in India was played, until 1989, 55% of all Tests in Asia were drawn.)

The series had been set up for a potentially thrilling climax, but instead ended with a squib that was not merely damp, but had been dredged up from the bottom of a stagnant lake. As a dramatic conclusion, it was as tepid as if the film Gladiator had concluded with the heroic Maximus tweaking a hamstring and being ruled out of his vengeance-fuelled fight to the death with naughty Emperor Commodus, before retiring from being a gladiator and training to become an actuary instead.

England emerge from the series considerably refreshed as a team. Most of their key players re-found their form as the series progressed, and some new ones showed promise. They will, no doubt, be frustrated that, having fallen short earlier in the year against both the toughest spinners and the best pace attack they could face in world cricket today, they are not scheduled to have the opportunity to test themselves again against either Pakistan and South Africa until the 2015-16 season.

Indian cricket, meanwhile, is facing a smorgasbord of selectorial bullets that it could bite. It has been tentatively pushing those bullets around its plate for too long. It will be fascinating to see which ones it decides to chomp, whether they go bang in its face, and whether any of the bullets decide to bite themselves.


● England's spinners took 39 wickets in the four Tests, the most by English slow bowlers in a series since the 1978-79 Ashes, and the most taken by visiting tweakers in India since Australia's tour in 1969-70. Swann, Panesar and their various slow-bowling underlings collectively averaged 28.6 ‒ the second best average by touring twirlers in the last 34 series of three or more Tests in India, since England's victorious tour of 1976-77 (bettered only by Australia's Michael-Clarke-unaccountably-taking-6-for-9-enhanced spin average of 23.3 in 2004-05).

● The previous 11 visiting spin attacks to India have returned series averages in excess of 39 (seven of them over 50). England's spinners' economy rate of 2.65 was the best by a visiting tweak attack in India since Zimbabwe's slow bowlers went for just 2.57 per over in a two-Test series in 2001-02.

● England's spinners bagged three five-wicket hauls in the series - as many as had been taken by visiting spinners in the previous 31 Tests in India.

● India's spinners averaged 40.6 in the series - the seventh home series out of the last nine in which they have averaged over 34.

● It was the first time in 13 home series that India's slow bowlers have averaged more than their opponents', dating back to the 2004-05 series against Pakistan.

● India's spinners averaged 42% more than England's, the biggest margin by which they have been outbowled in a home series since the tied-Test rubber against Australia in 1986-87, when Yadav, Shastri and Maninder Singh (average 54.7) were bested by Matthews and Bright (33.8) - an offspinning allrounder and a bearded left-armer. Ominously for Panesar, the bearded left-armer never played Test cricket again, and concerningly for Swann, the offspinning allrounder averaged 63 with the ball over the rest of his Test career. England should drop them both for good immediately. You cannot fight historical precedent.

● Root's debut meant that England have fielded 21 different players in Tests in 2012, their most since 2003, when 27 players donned the three lions, 12 of whom never played for England again.

● The 12 centuries England scored this year is their lowest tally since 2003, and their collective 2012 batting average of 30.6 is the lowest since they averaged 25.7 in 2001.

● England end 2012 with a record of five wins, three draws and seven losses from their 15 Tests - their joint most defeats since losing eight out of ten in a spectacularly disastrous 1993, and only the second time in the last ten years that they have lost more Tests than they have won (they won five, lost six in 2006). They had lost only five of 36 Tests from 2009 to 2011.

● India won three, drew one and lost five of their nine Tests in 2012. They also won three and lost five in 2011 - previously, they had not had a losing year since 2000. Their collective 2012 batting average of 29.62 is their lowest for any year since 1996. They have lost ten of their 17 Tests since the start of the series in England last year. Before that, they had lost 10 of their previous 55 Tests.

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