July 4, 2014

An old-fashioned series

India's five-Test tour of England feels like a throwback to the 1950s, down to the weak touring squad

The class of 2011: defensive captain, toothless bowling attack, and a legendary batting line-up that failed to fire. What will be different this time round? © AFP

When India last toured England, they played four Tests. They lost all four. They started the series threatening to be competitive and then fell apart. They spent days in the field hunting leather, finding it increasingly difficult to take 20 wickets. Indeed, so bad had things become that when they did dismiss an English batsman, they changed their minds and called him back to have another go.

They let English crowds of this new millennium experience the halcyon days of the 1930s when Bradman and Trumper and Hutton laid waste to bowling attacks with merciless application. When their turn came to bat, India found their old guard - except for one grizzled veteran - had retreated, sowing panic in the ranks.

India generously gave Stuart Broad the first of his hat-tricks and turned Tim Bresnan into a 1980s West Indian incarnate. The Indian defeats even moved journalists to descend to juvenile headlines that drew on language drawn from teenager text-messaging archives, all the better to capture their on-field catastrophes.

It was the worst of times. It most certainly was not the best of times. Unless, of course, you happened to be English.

India are now back in England. Three years have passed, and much has changed. Some things haven't. Like the Indian team of 2011, this one is supposed to make the series a close-run thing. Indeed, some have even suggested - as others did in 2011 - that India could win. English pitches have supposedly become more batsman-friendly; England have received a battering of their own, Down Under and Right Here; their captain is preoccupied with trading verbal barbs with retired Test cricketers (never a winning strategy, especially if the retiree in question is a notorious Australian wind-up artist); retirements - forced and unforced - have seemingly denuded their ranks; and perhaps most crucially, in a stage-setting series played before the Indian one, England failed to close the deal on a win and a draw, coming away instead with a draw and a loss. England are, in this view, ripe for the kill, waiting for the fork to be put in so that we may all chime in unison, "It's done!"

Perhaps not. India have generously brought along their own problems. Their bowling attack, historically reticent about taking 20 wickets in the five days of a Test, does not seem to have acquired the appropriate number of fangs. Their captain remains, in Test cricket, bafflingly defensive, content to do his best impression of a shipwreck survivor, drifting to any safe destination the currents might carry him. The replacement of the Old Guard by the Young Turks, while promising much in South Africa and New Zealand, has yet to be solidified as the Real Deal, the McCoy, the genuine item. The openers contribute a brittle head to an unsteady body. And lastly, a steady diet of limited-overs cricket in the past few months will have contributed its fair share of rust to batting discretion and bowling stamina.

If India win, we will be told their success was only to be expected against such a fragmented, rudderless, demoralised English team. If they lose, familiar, lopsided, narratives of their overseas incompetence, their inability to play seam, their lack of fighting spirit in moments of adversity, will be trotted out. Counter-narratives are possible, of course. If India win, it will signal the coming to age of the Young Turks, and very possibly of at least two fast bowlers and one spinner. If India lose, England will have shown their own transition is proceeding smoothly - despite the absence of South Africans, and despite the presence of bearded subversives in the ranks that Michael Henderson has been doing his best to warn us about. (On a related note, India will hope that they can provoke many who come to see them play to fail the Tebbit Test.)

A five-Test tour of England by India - a nod in the direction of Indian cricket's coffers - is delightfully old-fashioned. It promises to transport us all the way back to the 1950s. We might almost expect to see sponsor-logo-free full-sleeve shirts and Brylcreemed hair, visibly sported by helmet-free batsmen. India and their fans will hope that the 1950s will only be present in this fashion - by way of allusion and not by way of final scorelines.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sam on July 6, 2014, 21:43 GMT

    Whatever the outcome Samir, I hope this is the beginning of more 5 test series. Playing series that are long enough to truly test each player, and give them a stage to shine or expose their weakness is the only way to rebuild interest in Test cricket.

  • Vinod on July 6, 2014, 13:16 GMT

    What a brilliant article by Samir, encapsulated and scoped 2011 and now very well. Firstly, I welcome the return to 5 test matches...even thought it might mean a total domination by eng and pages of opprobrium poured by the serial members of the 'lets bag india club'.....The one way india could havendone somedamage in this series is by including Yadav.....hopefuly he will be called up.....else taking 20 wickets in 5 days is gonna prove a test too far........hope am wrong...

  • Kaushik on July 5, 2014, 18:04 GMT

    Surprising to read this piece from someone who's usually not cynical. Why so negative? Shouldn't we be celebrating the fact that a five Test series is taking place outside of the Ashes?

    And while both teams are flawed there are enough young players with a reputation to make across the two sides for it to be fascinating viewing on that count alone.

  • Jeff on July 5, 2014, 10:42 GMT

    This theory that 'cricket wouldnt survive without India', and 'cricket is on an Indian lifeline' and of course 'India provides 86% of cricket revenues' is nonsense. This '87%' includes money payed by Indians to Indians, that cricket as a whole does not see a single penny (or rupee) of - I am of course referring to the huge sums paid by Indian broadcasters to the Indian board for TV rights for the national team and the IPL - cricket as a whole does not see any of this money. If India were to'vanish' as people say, yes this huge some of money would vanish to, but the place where it goes would be gone as well and the rest of the cricketing world would go on as normal. The only time Indian money helps cricket is when they host bilatteral tours, or host an ICC event, otherwise its just huge sums of Indian money going to Indians.

  • Rajat on July 5, 2014, 8:25 GMT

    In 2011, India came to England as the No1. Test team. The best defence of that claim was their performance in S. Africa six months earlier where they returned after drawing a tight series for the first time ever. Zaheer, Sreesanth and Harbhajan contributed with the ball, while one of Tendulkar's two centuries was termed the Performance of the Year by Cricinfo. In between India also won the World Cup and an away series against West Indies which wouldn't have hurt their chances. What followed was therefore catastrophic. In 2014, India returns with weakened reputations and lower expectations. But the discerning observer can see the rebuilding process is beginning to pay off. While the bowling will still struggle to get 20 wickets every Test, it is definitely more potent than what they achieved in 2011 - 40 wickets @ 70 runs per wicket. The batting unit should continue the strong progress shown in S. Africa and New Zealand in the last 4 Tests. I expect a far better contest this time round

  • Steve on July 4, 2014, 22:21 GMT

    As for Ind, the batting old guard is gone except for Gambhir who may not even get a look in if first choice pair of Dhawan and Vijay justify their selection. Same in bowling dept with Zaheer and Harbhajan gone. Dhoni may play a deperate knock or two when all seem lost (like he did on the last Eng tour). I expect total annihilation of Ind team by Eng. This series will be a god send for Eng. They couldn't have asked for a better gift, especially after losing to SL recently, not even a lowly Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. I expect quite a few Eng careers to revive while Ind careers to draw to a close after ths series.

  • Roger on July 4, 2014, 13:16 GMT

    Spoke a little too soon, I think. This England is not in the same mood of the one of 2011. At least the first two tests will be good contests this time.

  • Dummy4 on July 4, 2014, 11:48 GMT

    The 1959 series still stands out in my mind. After the auction of the captains in an earlier series against the WI in India, Gaekwad was given the helm. Unlike the present tour, they played the full county circuit. I think India did well only in the second test at Lord's under Roy. A century on debut by Baig at Manchester, that turned out to be the only one in his career. Umrigar too hit one in the same test. But India had unearthed a decent medium fast bowler in Desai. Borde and Nadkarni, together with Manjrekar also did enough. Gupte was fading. On the other hand, May and Cowdrey were brilliant. Truman and Statham were simply threatening. Surendranath was such a defensive bowler. There were rumors about his action too. Jaisimha didn't play any test but played a few first class matches. The present team is certainly more united and purposeful than the '59 team. Let us see how this team does. I believe it will be more competitive. Wishing India good luck!

  • Art on July 4, 2014, 10:30 GMT

    Great to see a 5-test series, regardless of anyone's coffers. If they just play the series that will produce the best cricket, the coffers will look after themselves in the long run.

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