England v India, 3rd Test, The Oval, 3rd day August 11, 2007

When even self-interest fails to stimulate



Ian Bell was just another England batsman whose flashiness proved his downfall © Getty Images

For the scores of cricket fans packed onto the London Underground this morning, there was a special message as the train arrived at their destination. "Our next stop is Oval," announced the driver over the tannoy, "where I regret to inform you the forecast is for sun." It was a droll reminder of how futile England's predicament had become. On Friday their series prospects were marmalised by an Indian batting performance of stunning totality, and now all that remained was a three-day face-saving exercise.

Even so, for professional batsmen - a selfish bunch by nature - the idea of batting for three days in perfect sun-blessed conditions should not really have been the chore that England's top order made it out to be today. Their coach, Peter Moores, had even dangled the carrot in his comments on the previous evening. "Help yourselves," was the gist of his message as he exhorted them to bat, bat and then bat some more. If they put their own interests first, he reasoned, those of the team would follow soon enough. If Brian Lara was an Englishman in this situation, he would have had designs on a third world record.

Instead England's response was nervy, motley and self-destructive. Massive totals can have that effect on opposing sides - every run that is scored sinks into the requirement like a footstep up a sand-dune - but it could not mitigate the culpability of so many of England's dismissals. Andrew Strauss's hook to deep square leg on Friday evening might have been excusable after two days of hard toil, but it was not intended to be a template for what followed.

England were limp, as limp as they had been in Lahore two winters ago in a similarly hopeless situation. Alastair Cook, dropped twice while clipping off his pads to leg slip, made it third time unlucky by spooning a return catch to Anil Kumble off the back of his over-eager blade. Kevin Pietersen allowed his more watchful persona to dominate the first 106 balls of his innings, before his hubristic Mr Hyde let rip at Sachin Tendulkar's very first delivery, and even Ian Bell, a man whose appetite for easy runs is unsurpassed in this side, could not resist a wild slash at a wide one from Zaheer Khan.

The flashiness of their downfall made Tendulkar's sheet-anchor single-mindedness on the first two days all the more admirable. He took no risks whatsoever at a stage of the game when many onlookers were questioning the value of such stodginess. England's batsmen, by contrast, had been granted a rare opportunity to be lauded for a lack of aesthetic appeal, much as happened to Michael Atherton at Johannesburg in 1995-96. None of them showed much desire to do things the ugly way.

Only Michael Vaughan, who was genuinely deceived by an excellent googly from Kumble, and Paul Collingwood - the latest victim of Ian Howell's ignoble series - could be excused for the manner of their dismissals. But even Collingwood admitted a measure of culpability in the shot that got him out. Talking of England's approach to such a towering total, he said: "You have to stick to the gameplan of picking on your strengths, which for me was the straight ball on the pads, hitting it to the leg side." The fact that he missed out on his money shot was all the excuse that Howell needed.

The flashiness of their downfall made Tendulkar's sheet-anchor single-mindedness on the first two days all the more admirable. He took no risks whatsoever at a stage of the game when many onlookers were questioning the value of such stodginess. England's batsmen, by contrast, had been granted a rare opportunity to be lauded for a lack of aesthetic appeal...

India's bowlers were good but far from excellent - they did not need to be. It was not until they took the new ball with England already ruptured at 288 for 5 that they finally found the same consistency and aggression that had carried them to victory in the last Test at Trent Bridge. Up until that point their swing - though prodigious - had been misdirected, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni lining himself up a foot to the right of the return crease. The uncertainty they created, however, was enough to break England's resolve.

"Generally you know exactly what the ball is going to do as it comes down, but it's very hard to line bowlers up when they are swinging it both ways," said Collingwood, who made it sound rather as if he had spent his summer facing Wasim Akram. "The control that they've shown has been excellent, but being brought up on Indian wickets, you have to have that variety. "

Though the series is lost, Collingwood insisted that the match is not yet all over for England. "I think everyone in the dressing room thinks it can be saved," he said. "Whether we can win it or not is a different matter, but there's plenty of fight in there, and we've got two days to show that fight." History suggests that it is not entirely out of the question. In 1990, England were baked by India's batsmen to the tune of 606 runs, folded for 340 in their first innings, then batted to the close with David Gower leading the way. Gower, however, was playing for his career. England's current incumbents cannot even play for themselves at the moment.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo