India v England, 1st Test, Ahmedabad, 3rd day November 17, 2012

England caught in spin cycle

The familiar failings and self-inflicted wounds suggest England's batsmen remained scarred by recent experiences in Asia

Chris Broad, during his brief spell in the media, once remarked that he had "run out of expletives" to describe a passage of play. While it was not, perhaps, quite what Broad meant - you suspect he was searching for the word "superlatives" - it would have proved rather apt to describe England's first-innings batting display in Ahmedabad. They were, quite simply, wretched.

Indeed, the first half of the third day of this Test was wearingly familiar. England groped around against spin like blind men reaching for a bench that wasn't there. All the talk of improvement, all the talk of game plans, all the confident predictions were exposed as bluster. England looked no better than they had in the UAE. In fact their total - 191 - was almost identical to the average score they made in that series against Pakistan: 190.66. It seemed nothing had changed.

Ian Bell's dismissal will gain the most attention and there is no getting away from the fact that he played a horrid shot. Kevin Pietersen, too, batted as if he were on ice and could have been out on numerous occasions before he played around one. Both looked as if they were carrying baggage from previous campaigns; mental scars that have left them nervous and uncertain.

Bell has been skipping down the wicket to spinners from the start for some time. He did it to his first ball in the warm-up match against Haryana, too, and only just survived as the ball dropped behind mid-on. It is, if the ball is there for him, an appropriate tactic. But he is not selecting the shot on merit; he is selecting it on chance. It is a remarkable error for such an accomplished player and speaks of panic and desperation.

But perhaps it would be wise to suspend judgement. While England must not delude themselves into thinking they are simply unfortunate, there are several mitigating factors. For a start, the toss has been a huge factor in this game and batting first an advantage.

It is also worth noting that the umpires endured an unfortunate third day. England benefited more than they suffered, but the arbitrary nature of some of the decisions proved that even the best - and Aleem Dar may just be the best umpire the game has ever had - can make mistakes and increased the element of chance involved in this match. Interestingly, while the BCCI continue to resist the use of DRS, they have installed Hawk Eye on their own website, as a tool for following the game. It may be a sign of a move towards acceptance.

Most of all, though, England batted far better second time around. To some extent, their second innings served to rob them of any excuses for the first. They could no longer claim that the pitch was unplayable or the bowling full of mystery or magic. They had just batted haplessly.

But the second-innings performance - unfinished though it is - should have provided them with some confidence. Nick Compton looks admirably solid; Alastair Cook has little to prove. Their job has only just begun but they have shown themselves and their team-mates that with patience, application and calm, it is possible to prosper in these circumstances. Talk of Leeds 1981 or Kolkata 2001 is mightily premature, however.

"There will be calls for Bell to be dropped and, on his form in Asian conditions, it is hard to defend him. He now averages just 18 in his five-and-a-half Tests in India"

England learned a few things that could be useful, too. They learned that Zaheer Khan can, despite a slightly larger girth, still reverse swing the ball prodigious distances in both directions. They learned that Umesh Yadav is quicker than any of their bowlers involved in this game. And they learned that even the spinners are more effective if they are used in shorter spells. The Indian spinners, Pragyan Ohja in particular, gained appreciably sharper turn than Graeme Swann. Weariness is, no doubt, a factor.

England also learned, or perhaps that should be were reminded, that Duncan Fletcher is a cunning man. Almost every little trick he has planned - and they are all legitimate - has worked a treat: the lack of spin granted to England in the warm-ups; the docile warm-up pitches; the lush outfield in Ahmedabad when this match started and dozens of other details. He has been plotting this revenge for months.

But perhaps England could also take some comfort. Much was made about Ashwin's variations ahead of this series but, so far, he has delivered them poorly. Not only are they relatively easy to pick, but his legbreak, in particular, is delivered with little control. His offbreak is still a decent weapon, but it really is not anything England have not seen before.

Ojha looks a fine bowler. He has good control, unusually good variation of pace and he turns the ball appreciably. But he is a conventional left-arm spinner. Just the sort of thing that England have faced many times before. He is to be respected, certainly, but not feared. There is no Saeed Ajmal in this series.

The one thing that England must not do is dismiss their first innings as 'just a bad day.' If they reflect honestly, they will accept that all but two - Samit Patel and Tim Bresnan - of the wickets to fall on day three had a self-inflicted element. While that will be the cause of great frustration in the England camp, it might also be termed as encouraging: they really can do better than this.

There will be calls for Bell to be dropped and, on his form in Asian conditions, it is hard to defend him. He now averages just 18 in his five-and-a-half Tests in India and departs on Monday to attend the birth of his first child. He may find it hard to win his place back. It is hard to deny, however, that when England go to New Zealand or when they play Australia, Bell will remain as likely a match-winner as just about anyone in the team. His problems against spin might be viewed as a microcosm of the problems of English cricket in Asia. The England selectors will search in vain for a better all-round batsman in county cricket than Bell.

Would this Test have been any different if England had won the toss? Maybe. But they would still have needed to bowl and bat far better than they have done. They lost the toss in Adelaide in 2010 but, because they took half chances and bowled well, they turned it to their advantage. To this point, they have been comprehensively outplayed by India and they would be best served not looking for excuses but solutions.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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