One of England's stupidest quarter-hour brainmelts
A brilliant Test match, in which two teams out of the habit of winning probed at each other's several weaknesses over 13 compellingly undulating sessions, was decided in 13 minutes of compellingly insane batting in the face of Ishant Sharma's well-directed and persistent aggression, and the high-risk captaincy of MS Dhoni.
The Hunch Before Lunch may not go down alongside The Rumble In The Jungle and The Thrilla In Manila in the annals of seminal global sporting moments, but the Indian skipper made what proved to be the decisive gambit when he launched his pacer's bouncer barrage, just as the English batsmen's minds were turning towards their Sizzling Slicelettes of Suavely Sauteed Salmon, Served On A Pert Cleavage Of Beetroot, Blotched In An Arrogantly Lemony Vinaigrette (or whatever dish from the ECB recipe booklet is considered scientifically optimal for a fifth-day luncheon during a delicately poised run-chase).
First Matt Prior, achingly reduced from his former brilliance, then Ben Stokes, so fearlessly decisive in Australia but now exuding the confidence of a penguin in a Flying Across The Sahara Desert race, and then Joe Root, contagiously afflicted with the silly stick after what had been shaping up to be a defining innings, followed each other to the pavilion. It was like watching a man lose two arms and a leg in three back-to-back attempts to rescue a digital watch from the mouth of the same stubborn crocodile.
It all added up to one of the stupidest quarter-hours in England's illustrious cricketing history of game-losing brainmelts, and one of the finest Indian victories, particularly given the recent second-innings failures of the team collectively, and Ishant individually, to secure Test wins in Johannesburg and Wellington. In those innings, Ishant took 1 for 91 in 29 overs, and 0 for 164 in 45. He was the only member of the current Indian attack ever to have bowled in a fourth-innings win, but the last of those was more than three years ago. Doubts must have been surfacing in him and his team-mates as Moeen Ali and Root approached lunch undefeated. It was a majestic performance at a crucial moment by a bowler who has endured much criticism from commentators, writers, fans and his own statistics, and ensured that the batting brilliance of Ajinkya Rahane's beautiful first-innings counter-attack and Vijay's equally silken second-innings resistance was rewarded with a striking and deserved triumph.
England began poorly, ended pitifully, and were fitful in between. Too much can be read into such matter, but some of England's body language should have been pixellated out of the TV coverage for fear of offending any watching children. No doubt it emanates from frustration and competitiveness, but it conveys desperation, fatigue and vulnerability.
Amongst the several-hundred-strong backroom staff of the infinitely resourced England set-up, there surely must be a body language coach (or corporeal physicality expressiveness consultant). Leg-before-wicket appeals that hit the batsman on the glove, outside the line of off stump, while heading over and wide of the timbers, now prompt the kind of reaction that would just about be understandable if you had been denied victory in a quiz, after the quiz master announced that the answer to the decisive question, "What was WG Grace's middle name?", was not "Gilbert", as you had written, but "Ethel".
Cook's captaincy now survives by default and desperation. With the departure of Prior, Cook has lost another fundamental component of the long-departed successful times. Only the struggling Bell, the wearied and decreasingly effective Anderson and Broad, and Cook himself, remain, each currently significantly diminished from his peak. The new players have generally done creditably, but without giving Cook the attacking arsenal, with bat or ball, that a captain needs. Especially a captain around whom the vultures are now not merely circling but tucking their napkins into their collars and asking for the wine list.
* Whatever else happens in this series, India have already set a record. Their numbers 8 to 11 have scored six half-centuries in the series - three by Bhuvneshwar (the first player ever to reach 50 three times in a series batting at 9 or lower, and only the fifth to do so batting at 8 or lower); Mohammed Shami's bowler-sapping 51 not out at Trent Bridge; Stuart Binny's wobble de-wobbling 78 in the second innings there; and the match-transforming 68 by Ravindra Jadeja at Lord's.
Just two Tests into the five-match series, this is already a record for most half-centuries scored by a team's numbers 8 to 11. Only four times in Test history (encompassing more than 600 series of two or more matches) had a team registered even five 50-plus scores by its last four batsmen. Australia's tail irritated England in the 1907-08 and 1924-25 Ashes, before repeating the trick in the West Indies in 1955. All of those were five-match series. Most recently, the Botham-inspired England managed five half-centuries from 8 or lower in the six-Test 1981 Ashes.
Only once previously had a team scored four tail-end half-centuries in the first two Tests of a series - New Zealand's tail did so against India in 1998-99, in the two matches played after the scheduled first Test was abandoned without a ball being bowled. So having your numbers 8 to 11 score six half-centuries in the first two Tests of a series is not merely unprecedented, it is scarcely believable.
* In sacking Kevin Pietersen, England took an enormous gamble. You could argue that in keeping Pietersen they would also have been taking an enormous gamble. What they failed to do in selecting their new era of batsmen was take any form of gamble, by introducing a player who could dominate an opposition attack. Ballance has been excellent, Moeen highly promising, albeit with a major emerging technical glitch against the short ball, and Robson a qualified success. Root has thrived back at No. 5, and he and Ballance have shown the ability to accelerate effectively when well set, but England's true aggression begins at No. 7.
This would not be such a problem if the aggression shown by numbers 7, 8 and 9 was working. Or even coming close to working. In this series, however, Prior has been sabbatical-inducingly ineffective, Stokes has scored three more ducks than would have been ideal from his three innings to date, and Broad now seems to be a swing-and-hope tailender rather than the innings-building bowling allrounder he promised to become in his early England years. (He has not lasted 50 balls in any of his last 20 Test innings, and has done so only three times in 45 innings since February 2012; he batted for 50 or more deliveries six times in his first eight Test matches, and 17 times in 57 innings up to and including January 2012.)
At Lord's on Monday, Root and Moeen batted expertly in the morning session, but without inflicting significant damage on India. In all, their partnership added 101 at 2.26 per over; 14 of them came from Ishant Sharma's first over back in the attack, just before hunch/lunch. Even a slightly swifter scoring rate could have made a significant difference to the narrative of the final day. None of England's current top six batsmen are scoring at more than 50 runs per 100 balls in this series (or have done in the past two years). If England's bowling attack obviously lacks balance, so too does their batting.
* England's series bowling averages after Lord's make for uncomfortable reading, not because they are so awful but because they are so ordinary. James Anderson has taken nine wickets; the other four bowlers have taken seven each. All five are averaging between 33 and 43. None has taken more than five wickets in either match. The four seamers' strike rates are all between 74 and 85. Individually and collectively, they have failed to make decisive impacts on the Tests. Stuart Broad, whose occasional meteoric spells have so often helped England to victory, has taken three or four wickets in each of his last eight Tests.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer