Dhoni faces up to huge challenge
For the second successive Monday, England emerged the superior side. The more happy unit. The more confident team. India, the world's No. 1 Test side, were never able to entirely dominate on any of the nine playing days. In his three-year stint as Indian captain MS Dhoni has never lost two Tests in a row, nor have India lost a Test series. But now, Andrew Strauss's men are not only threatening to win the Pataudi Trophy, but also are marching towards the title of the best Test team in the world.
On evidence at Lord's and in these four days at Trent Bridge, Her Majesty's men might just be able to snatch the crown from India. As they have done over the past two years, England played like a domineering team. The depth in their batting, which Dhoni said he was envious about, plucked them out of a precarious position on the first day at Trent Bridge after they slipped to 124 for 8. The local boy Stuart Broad hit a steely half-century to guide England to a more respectable 221, 97 runs which "really mattered," according to Dhoni. On the second afternoon, Broad restricted India's lead to 67 with a fierce spell of seam bowling that included a hat-trick.
India needed quick wickets on the third day to keep alive the hope of levelling the series, but one by one, the England batsmen, toyed with the bowling. The Indian attack was down to three specialists as Harbhajan Singh bowled only 13.4 overs in the match due to a stomach muscle injury.
"I didn't have any tricks left," Dhoni said after the 319-run defeat. "I tried everything I had left. They bat quite deep, [James] Anderson is the only one who doesn't bat to some extent. They were eight down for 120 and were able to score 100 more runs (in the first innings). The bowlers tried what they could. We were not really successful and that happens in cricket."
Dhoni said he couldn't blame his bowling attack, especially the new-ball pair of Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar, who have now played five Tests since June 20. "Our bowlers were a bit tired. That was one of the reasons. Their batsmen played some big shots. Their mis-hits landed in between the fielders. The bowlers tried everything but nothing really went our way."
But the biggest concern for India is the failure of their esteemed batting order to construct big totals. In the last five Tests, India have crossed 300 only once, at Roseau in the third Test against West Indies. In England, their highest so far has been 288.
The most damning stat is the performance of the Indian lower order (last five batsmen) as compared to their English counterparts. The England lower order comprising Matt Prior, Tim Bresnan, Graeme Swann, Broad and Anderson faced 710 deliveries and lasted 1059 minutes over the two Tests, while the Indians could barely survive 356 balls spanning 487 minutes.
"It's important to put runs on the board and we are slightly lacking that. Right from the last series we played, we haven't scored consistently so that's also a bit of a concern," Dhoni said. "One of the big areas of concern is the lower-order; we haven't been able to see the second new ball through. Hopefully it will get better and we won't be exposed to the new ball."
Adding to India's batting problems was the fact the neither Suresh Raina nor Yuvraj Singh could respond convincingly to the short-ball strategy emplyed by the England fast bowlers. Both men had hit fighting half-centuries (Raina in the second innings at Lord's and Yuvraj in the first innings at Trent Bridge) but today they succumbed cheaply to short-pitched deliveries.
Dhoni, though, backed his batsmen and their technique against bouncers. "That's often said to us but there have been games when we've done well in Perth, Durban and Barbados. We will get caught out once in a while but most of the batsmen are used to the short-pitched stuff."
A lot was written about India's determination and their ability to bounce back after starting poorly in a series. Coming back from 2-0 down, could be the biggest test of Dhoni's captaincy. And for Duncan Fletcher, who is barely two months into the India coaching job. "We are very confident in the talent in the dressing room and we'll make the most of the next 10 days," Dhoni said. He will have some reinforcements for the third Test: Gautam Gambhir is certain to play, while Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag could also return.
Dhoni said India needed to remain mentally tough in the nine-day break before the Edgbaston Test. "When you play at the top level you face tough situations and this is one of those. And that is what you are supposed to do: have belief in yourself and the team, in what you do. We will definitely make it tough (for England)."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo