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October 15, 2006
Eight interminable days into the competition, and the Champions Trophy is still searching in vain for a contest, any contest, remotely worthy of such lofty billing. If anyone thought that last week's diet of drivel would come to an end once the so-called "big guns" came out to play ... well, they forgot to take into account England's unrivalled ineptitude in one-day cricket.
Ignore the nonsensically close finish to this match - had it not been for a momentum-altering tea interval (which doubtless allowed Duncan Fletcher to have a few strong words with his underperforming charges), India would probably have romped to victory inside 20 overs. Instead, they slammed on the brakes when the spinners entered the fray, and turned a cakewalk into a stodgefest.
"I was pleased with the character the side showed," claimed Andrew Flintoff afterwards. "At one point, we thought if we got 160 or 170, we would be in the game, but as it turned out, even with 125, we did compete well. We managed to pick up six wickets and there was a glimmer of hope. But with another 30 or 40 runs on the board, it might have been a different story."
But they didn't, and instead the match was won with almost 20 overs to spare. Nobody should be remotely surprised. Until their late blip, India's performance was as committed and focused as the fervent support that they received from the Jaipur faithful; England, meanwhile, were as hangdog and supine as they had been back in this country in April, when they lost five of their six completed ODIs against India, including four in a row while the series was up for grabs.
This match, like so many of the worst one-day encounters, was decided inside the first hour. India bowled magnificently from first ball to last. Irfan Pathan rediscovered some of his mojo after an awful six months, Munaf Patel reprised the pace and aggression that had derailed England on his Test debut at Chandigarh in March, and when the seamers had done their bit, Ramesh Powar teased the lower-order into a flurry of self-destructive slogs. It was pitiful because it was so predictable.
In the build-up to this game, much of the hype in the England camp had stemmed from Flintoff's position in the batting order. In the absence of Marcus Trescothick, many observers felt that Freddie would be thrust in at No. 1, to lead from the front and belt the Indian openers back into the submissive state they had displayed in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Who knows whether the tactic was seriously discussed in the dressing-room, but if it was, then England bottled it, settling instead for a fudged statement of intent. Ian Bell has many merits as a one-day batsman, but he was never likely to carry the attack to Pathan in the manner that the situation demanded. By the time Flintoff arrived at the crease at 10 for 1, Pathan had a nerve-soothing maiden under his belt, and Captain Fantastic had a nagging sense of impending crisis to cloud his aggressive intent.
With Rahul Dravid fretting about the evening dew, England had been given an unexpected chance to bat, but they handed the advantage straight back with a display of untimely timidity. At present, of course, nothing much matters to England except the Ashes, but imagine if their opponents had been Australia and Pathan had been Glenn McGrath? Would England have been so willing to let their old nemesis dictate terms? Of course they wouldn't - they've have wanted to spank his 36-year-old backside straight into retirement. Let's see what mindset they adopt next Saturday.
This was such a disjointed fixture, it is hard to fathom what we've just witnessed. Ordinarily, a one-day international between England and India, in India, would be one of the most anticipated matches in the calendar, and true, the local crowd and the enthusiastic fireworks-display team did their best to crank up the hype.
But in fact, this game was more of a farewell than a grand hello. In terms of mindset and priorities, England and India were poles apart. Mentally, one team is halfway to Australia already ("Why [the] fight for the Ashes starts here" trumpeted one British Sunday broadsheet, as it embarked on a vast preview of next Saturday's showdown with the Aussies); the other has eyes only on the World Cup prize in the Caribbean in March.
England and India won't be seeing much of each other in the next few months. Appropriately enough they didn't see much of each other on the pitch today either.