August 2, 2014

Lose a Test in seven easy steps

From their Lord's awesomeness to their Southampton awfulness, India show you how

All of them would have been turning away in embarrassment if only Ravindra Jadeja had held on to the catch early in the Test © Getty Images

English cricket roared back to competence and beyond in the third Test, trouncing a flaccid India with a dominant and increasingly positive performance. Cook's England are back on the horse. Whether they can now jockey that horse to a series victory, and build themselves into Ashes-contending shape by next July, remains to be seen. The horse might unseat them at the next fence, before neighing in a southern-hemisphere accent about the quality of the bowling England will face in their 2015 series against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The horse might prove to be a donkey, or a tricycle. At one stage, it appeared that the horse might have its most important leg chopped off by a disciplinary hearing. But as remounts onto a long-lost horse/donkey/tricycle go, England's win scored high for technical merit and artistic impression.

India, riding the momentum of their Lord's victory like a dead haddock on a 750cc motorised unicycle, gave an object lesson in How Not To Play A Test Match, a nostalgia-fuelled piece-by-piece replica of their rancid form of 2011, and subsided limply with bat and ball in the face of England's outstanding all-round cricket. Ten days ago, Dhoni and his men had recorded one of the country's finest away wins, with most of their players having made a significant contribution in one or both of the first two Tests. They now head to Manchester with only two batsmen and one bowler in form. As immediate dismounts from a recently re-mounted horse go, it was a classic, in seven perfectly-executed steps.

Step 1: Lose a key bowler to injury
India as a cricketing nation is replete with many things - for example: batsmen with imposing first-class records; money; hype; opportunities; problems; and balls that go to the boundary like tracer bullets. "Endless Test-quality pace-bowling resources" is not on that list. So the loss of Ishant Sharma, immediately after his finest Test performance, was about as welcome in the Indian dressing room as a troupe of Piers Morgan impersonators would have been in England's.

India thus began the Southampton Test with Bhuvneshwar Kumar as their only bowler in anything even slightly resembling form (and without their four highest-rated bowlers in the ICC rankings - Ishant (20th) injured, Zaheer (21st) and Ojha (13th) omitted from the tour squad, and Ashwin (12th) left out again from the team in what appeared to be a counter-productively cautious attempt to play for a draw from 10.30am on day one).

Alongside Bhuvneshwar, they selected Jadeja (six wickets at 72 in his previous four Tests), Shami (six at 61 in his last five innings since taking four on the first day of the ultimately disastrous Wellington Test in February), and Pankaj on debut (having taken 2 for 109 in 25 overs in India's two low-key warm-up games, his only cricket since playing some non-IPL T20 in April). This was not necessarily a problem - provided that Bhuvneshwar maintained his form, and at least one of the other three rose to the occasion, as Angelo Mathews and Dhammika Prasad did for a similarly unimposing-looking Sri Lankan attack in Leeds.

The former did not quite happen; the latter did not come anywhere close to happening. Although perhaps, at a stretch, it might have done, had it not been for…

Step 2: Drop a simple catch donated by the out-of-form, under-pressure opposition captain, early on day one, after your debutant seamer has exploited that opposing skipper's long-standing technical glitch in precisely the manner you would have asked him to
I am in no position to criticise anyone for the quality of their slip catching. Since taking two slip catches in my second ever cricket match (an Under-9 encounter, at the end of which I had one more slip catch than runs in my career tally), I have pouched a grand total of zero. Partly, this has been due to lack of opportunity. That lack of opportunity, however, has been thoroughly justified and well earned, based on a sound body of empirical evidence.

However, Ravi Jadeja's blooper may prove to be the pivotal moment of the series. It was certainly the pivotal moment of the match. Lord's had a seemingly endless series of pivots, as the game slalomed its way through 13 engrossing sessions, until Ishant's decisive exploitation of England's short-ball lunacy on the final day. The Southampton Test had one - after Jadeja grassed his chance, England established control, then dominated throughout.

Had he taken it, Cook would have been out for 15, his personal pressure ratchet would have been cranked up a couple more notches, England would have been 25 for 1, with their skipper further undermined, Pankaj would have had an early wicket, and India might have been able to build on their performance at Lord's. The match might have ricocheted off into a very different narrative.

As it was, by the time Cook was finally out, he had scored 95 faith-restoring runs, his team were in a position of growing dominance at 213 for 2, Pankaj Singh had bowled 15 wicketless overs, any momentum had long since dissipated, and the vulnerability of their Ishant-less attack had been laid bare.

Step 3: Be unlucky
If dropping Cook could not be considered unlucky for India as a team, the reprieves of Bell and Buttler, both on 0, by probably-erroneous and certainly-questionable umpiring respectively, were certifiable misfortune. Had Bell been given out lbw for nought to Pankaj, rather than being reprieved on the grounds that the hot Hampshire sun had probably melted the varnish on the bails together so that Bell's middle stump would have flown out of the ground without the bails being dislodged, England would have been 220 for 3, with ten overs for India to strive for another wicket before stumps on day on. Perhaps India might then have restricted England to a manageable total; perhaps not. At least, they would have left The Sledgehammer Of Eternal Justice under considerable and justified pressure for his place.

Buttler's duck-avoiding reprieve, after receiving the benefit of the TV umpire's nagging doubt that a curious mole might have coughed some mud onto the ball whilst poking its snout out of the turf at the very moment that Rahane took a sharp low catch made little difference to the story of the match. Nor did two subsequent fielder-aided escapes, other than by exacerbating the sense that India were playing really badly. England were already past 400 with a dangerous lower order to come. Buttler's innings was a spicily-flavoured garnish on an already well-cooked stroganoff.

But the longer-term damage to India may be seen in the remaining Tests. Instead of extending Cook's and Bell's elongated periods of fruitlessness, both head to Old Trafford having scored important and fluent runs, and silenced any potential selectorial grumblings for the rest of the summer at least. Instead of a loudly quacking exhibit supporting the "Buttler is not ready for Test cricket" case (as bizarrely propounded by his own captain and self just a few weeks ago), the newcomer has proved his potential as a five-day destroyer.

Cook, Bell, Buttler and England were good enough to exploit their fortune; India were poor enough to compound theirs. Momentum is largely overrated as a factor in cricket, and is certainly a fragile commodity, especially for a fragile side. But India have healed some of the major fissures in the England line-up, and reopened their own.

Step 4: Have seven of your top eight batsmen reach 20, without any of them going on to reach 60, for the first time in your nation's Test history
In India's first innings, only Shikhar Dhawan of India's top eight was out for less than 20. Rahane's 54 was the top score. Much credit to England's bowlers. Considerable debit to India's batsmen. Three batsmen reached 20 in the second innings; Rahane top-scored again, with his unbeaten 52. Ten 20-plus scores in the match - but a highest innings of 50. One hundred-and-forty-nine times in Tests India have posted nine or more innings of at least 20. Rahane's 54 is their lowest highest score in any of those games. It is also India's lowest highest score in a completed Test since the low-scoring Hamilton Test of 2002-03. Was this the pernicious influence of T20? Or just rubbish batting? More likely the latter, I think. India's bowling attack conceding 500 might have been expected before the series. The careless subsidence of their high-class batting line-up was far more culpable.

Steps 5, 6, and 7: Get smacked around in the second innings; lose one of your two in-form batsmen, the prime candidate to anchor a defiant rear guard, to an infant-level run out; capitulate to a supposedly part-time spinner in a flurry of swipes, swishes and surrender-cricket on the final morning

Job done.

Next time: some stats.

Note: I will be performing at The Edinburgh Festival from August 13-24, then on a UK tour from September to December. Details here:

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