England v India, 3rd Investec Test, Ageas Bowl, 2nd day July 28, 2014

Encouragement for England - but no more

Gary Ballance, Ian Bell and Jos Buttler piled on the pain for India but luck played its part and judgement should be reserved for tougher tests

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#politeenquiries: Are the cricketing gods turning?

It seems churlish to find fault. It feels like going to a wedding and pointing out that almost a third of marriages end in divorce and that the cake will make you fat. But England would be guilty of wishful thinking if they concluded that all their problems are over after a couple of good days in the office.

Let's be clear: England's batting on the first two days of the third Investec Test at the Ageas Bowl was admirable. They established a strong platform through the top three and they accelerated intelligently and selflessly as the innings progressed. The return to form of Ian Bell was welcome and Jos Buttler provided a reminder that he has an unusual ability to destroy bowling and an exciting future. Gary Ballance, meanwhile, underlined the impression that whatever batting records Alastair Cook sets, he may well break them.

And, just as excuses are largely irrelevant in defeat, so caveats should be in success. If England made use of a flat pitch and a jaded attack, it is because they earned those conditions: by electing to bat and wearing down the bowlers, they partially created the environment in which they flourished. For many months, they have been criticised for failing to score 400 in an innings - they failed to do so between March 2013 and June 2014 - so to do so three times in the last eight innings is a welcome sign of progress. You might even conclude that there were shades of the 2011 series in the day's play.

But… when players go through poor patches, they generally suggest that they are focusing on their "processes" and not allowing themselves to worry too much about the outcomes. In short, they are working hard and hoping for the best.

So it is probably wrong to judge a performance solely on the outcome. Just as a batsman, or even a team, can be undone by unplayable bowling, so they can be gifted runs by dreadful bowling. We are fools to judge them as heroes or villains on such evidence. The best players are sometimes the ones good enough to edge the best deliveries.

The truth is that, one of the key differences in this innings to some of the others this summer, was that England enjoyed better fortune. Had Cook not been dropped on 15, had Bell and Buttler been given out on 0 (replays suggested Bell was lbw on the first day but were inconclusive in regard to a low slip catch offered by Buttler), then the scenario would have been very different. England would have played no differently, but the result would have been radically altered.

This was a performance that taught us almost nothing about the main protagonists. Just as we already knew that Cook was a determined character, we also knew that Bell timed the ball sweetly and that Buttler could be destructive.

But it did not answer more pressing questions. It did not, for example, answer whether Buttler, who was also reprieved on 23 and 59, when MS Dhoni missed a stumping, had the defensive game to prosper at this level. Aged 23 and drafted into the team early due to the decline of Matt Prior, Buttler needs a prolonged run in the side to allow him a chance to acclimatise at this level. But his early nervousness outside off stump did suggest there will be times when he will require patience if he is to achieve his undoubted potential.

It did not answer whether Cook has answered his technical problems outside off stump. And it did not answer whether Bell, now the senior man in the middle-order, can rise to the challenge presented to him by the absence of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott and become the man England rely upon in crisis.

If that sounds churlish, it should be remembered this was Bell's first century in 20 Test innings and a couple of weeks short of a year. And, while it was a beautiful, skilful and important innings, it came when a platform had already been established; he came to the crease with the score 213-2. While Bell was magnificent during the Ashes of 2013, his struggles since have only provoked reminders of his earlier struggles to perform when the pressure was at its greatest.

Even Ballance will experience far more testing conditions. He has responded superbly to the challenge of being asked to bat No. 3 and could hardly have been asked to achieve more. But he has enjoyed a succession of benign pitches this summer and will surely face more exacting scrutiny of his ability in the subcontinent or in Australia.

None of this means that these players will not meet those challenges. But it does mean that we should reserve judgement on the new-look England side until they have faced

To be fair to England, they capitalised handsomely on their luck. Bell provided a masterclass in playing spin bowling, disrupting India's plans by attacking Ravindra Jadeja and, after a nervous start, punishing the impressive Pankaj Singh and the slightly off-colour Mohammed Shami.

Bell both skipped down the wicket and went deep into his crease to disrupt Jadeja's lengths and, in between some handsome lofted drives, also swept cleverly. And if Buttler is, at this stage, a blunter weapon, the manner in which he pulled short balls and reverse swept full ones suggested a talent that could, in time, win many games for England. A less selfless batsman would have played for a century on debut rather than attempted to set-up the declaration.

So this was, without doubt, an encouraging day for England. But far tougher challenges lie ahead and it might prove optimistic to conclude a corner has been turned just yet.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Martin on July 29, 2014, 11:12 GMT

    I don't exactly know why, for I am sure statistics prove otherwise, Bell has never convinced me totally as a reliable batsman who could stand up in a crisis situation. If he had other experienced players to play with and coming in at 5 or 6 fine, but as a pivotal bat in the crucial position of number 4, definitely not. I think it would be better for England to promote Root to 4 and get in another bowler in to take some of the workload off Anderson and Broad, especially in such a crammed fixture schedule.

  • Umar on July 29, 2014, 10:48 GMT

    England team is not bad. It's still a good team. It just need one moment. Maybe this first innings was THE moment.

  • Paulo on July 29, 2014, 10:13 GMT

    Everyone in the top 6 has now scored some sort of runs. Considering I've been critical of Cook and Bell, it's good to see them score.

    Still doubts. Robson outside off stump. Cook outisde offstump. Cook's captaincy. Everyone vs the short ball. etc.

    @jackiethepen that's an interesting excuse you've forged for Bell. For me it was partly sloppy and partly bad luck. However do you not recognise that when he came in, the situation was very easy for him? Ballance and Cook set it up, but you don't give any recognition of that. Perhaps try and be more balanced.

  • David on July 29, 2014, 9:29 GMT

    Come on, George. Give England some slack. Things worked out so far, other than the on-going problems of Robson and Moeen's techniques which are for the Management to address. Or ignore. Big thing now is: having set the game up, can Cook's captaincy and the bowlers take advantage, or will they blow the opportunity?

  • sameer on July 29, 2014, 7:23 GMT

    It would be better to judge the performance of this batting lineup and both bowling units once both sides have actually finished an innings each. Never judge a pitch or even a team till both teams have batted on it. So, let's not call the pitch slow, dead or any such sort. Even if that might be the case eventually. If they bat well, India have enough in the form of Pujara, Kohli and Rohit to get past 400; or so one would hope! As far as cook, I think the next two days will be the litmus test to his captaincy. He has nearly 600 on board, decent bowlers and home conditions to work with. If he still has 5 fielders on the fence at the end of day 3, then it really is time for him to go. Even if England do win this one.

  • Dummy4 on July 29, 2014, 6:38 GMT

    and for whom the bell tolls...a familiar scenario.... a hosts with low confidence level.. askipper.. who needs amiracle to perk up.. and a stonewalling tactic... flat track.. a toss win.. and one mr. dhoni.. assisting ineveryway to get people in form.. in a battle of ...mediocratity.some one please switch .. the channel to galsgow 2014... atleast the lawn bowling is more interesting than this...this game like many others will test one's patience.. and if england do manage to win.. a dawn of englsh summer will ...monotinise this series.. indian definately playing more than asupporting part... adios.. and welcom GLASGOW 2014

  • Khehla on July 29, 2014, 5:48 GMT

    One has to realise that England are playing @ home it was always unlikely to lose the series after the loss against SL. I still think England will win the series 2-1. That said, England winning the series could have undesired result, for instance it could mean Cook keeping the captaincy, especially considering the amount of investment put to him by the ECB. It could mean Prior keeping his spot with Cook's support. For England to change and really make success of this "new era" I can't help but to hope they lose. Bell should step up, not going back to scoring easy runs, hundreds when others have already otherwise we'll another coming-of-age of Bell for the umpteenth time.

  • John on July 29, 2014, 3:21 GMT

    @Sexysteven on (July 29, 2014, 2:44 GMT), have you even been watching the game? Slow and low? There has been excellent carry on this pitch, with the keepers consistently taking the ball at waist height. If England win this game it will be in large part due to India's poor catching and refusal to use DRS.

  • Steven on July 29, 2014, 2:44 GMT

    Yes agood effort from England but seriously if England win this game it will be due to substandard batting from India on this road there's no way there should be a result on this dead flat slow low rubbish pitch and shouldn't hide the fact England still have issues of course cooks going to attack more this innings he's got so many runs to play but that won't hide the fact in general he's quick to retreat when under pressure

  • Jackie on July 29, 2014, 0:23 GMT

    I'm not sure of Dobell's logic. We know cricket is a game where batsmen get lucky or unlucky, even without the absence of DRS, or TV evidence of a catch, the ball can hit a crack or indent in the pitch and rear up without warning or scuttle along under the bat with low bounce. Both things had happened to Bell and the danger was that he began to feel jinxed. A run of bad luck can undermine superstitious batsmen and begin to prey on their nerves. That is what happened to Prior last year. By batting for six hours Bell has advanced his game from his scratchy beginning to something like his old form at his best. When a batsman is truly out of form he doesn't last long no matter what luck goes his way. Bell was in a midway position. Not in bad form but not prospering in good form. The achievement is not how an innings starts - all batsmen have to get their eye in - but how you then compile your innings. Bell's centuries for Warks earlier in the year played its role in his success today.

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