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Having gambled with a slow, low surface, India will be pleased with their position but an extra seamer and bowling last could mean England have the edge
George Dobell in Nagpur
December 13, 2012
This was a bizarre day's cricket. It featured an ill-balanced attack against a sometimes ill disciplined batting line-up on as slow a pitch as England, at least, have played on this century.
That it generated a certain drama was more due to the position of the series than the thrill of the cricket. Indeed, as Test cricket fights for relevance, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that pitches like this represent one of the greatest threats to its future.
Some will rile at that. They will claim - quite rightly - that India have the right to produce any surface they like for a home series. But this is not a pitch that will suit India any more than it will suit England. It is sluggish and uneven and helps neither the batsmen nor the bowler with the greatest skill. It is not a pitch that rewards good cricket. It is not a pitch that rewards spectators; be they at the ground or watching at home. It is not a good pitch.
Progress, with bat or ball, can be made. But it can be made, for batsmen or bowlers, only with dogged persistence. There is some merit in that; Test cricket is meant to reward persistence and consistency, after all. But it is also meant to reward flair and skill and produce entertaining cricket and it cannot be ignored that around 40,000 of this stadium's 45,000 seats were empty. Who is going to pay to watch a run-rate below two and bowlers hoping to bore out batsmen?
India took a gamble with this pitch. Having been outplayed in the last two Tests despite designing the surfaces and winning the toss, they may have reasoned that, in normal conditions, they will struggle to compete with England. After six losses in the seven previous Tests between them, it is an understandable conclusion. Their solution is a surface that should negate pace or high bounce - two of England's strengths - and should also guarantee a definitive result.
That their gamble has, in part, come off owes plenty to some weak batting from England. While timing the ball was tricky throughout the day and run-scoring desperately difficult, all the wickets - with the exception of Alastair Cook, who was undone by an umpiring mistake - were due to batsman error. Certainly Jonathan Trott can have few excuses for leaving a straight one that hit his off stump, while Ian Bell's tame catch to cover will have done nothing to appease the growing band of cynics who question his long run in the team. He will know he surrendered his wicket too easily.
|Of the five debutants England have utilised this year - Compton, Patel, Bairstow and Taylor are the others - Joe Root's has been the most impressive beginning|
Such wickets tend to fall on these pitches, though. It is not that batsmen receive unplayable deliveries as much as the fact they face so few scoring opportunities. With the lack of pace reducing the opportunities to pull, cut, nudge or deflect, batsmen were obliged to wait for the longest of hall-volleys before going on the attack. Even long-hops - and Piyush Chawla delivers plenty - are problematic on such a low, uneven surface and, in their desire to force the pace, forcing shots offer catching opportunities.
But part of India's gamble has backfired. Not only did they lose the toss and give first use of the pitch to England's batsmen - it may be more appropriate to say they gave last use to England's bowlers - and it will have been worrying for them to see that Ishant Sharma, their lone seamer, was easily the most dangerous of the bowlers. Had he enjoyed some fast bowling support rather than a band of spinners for whom the surface offered little, England might have been dismissed already.
India can take comfort in the absence of the injured Steven Finn. He may have been a horrible proposition on this surface, though if England's seamers bowl with control, they too will surely prove hard to master.
That the day ended with honours just about even - it would be a brave fellow who tried to predict a par score on this wicket - was a reflection of some disciplined batting from Pietersen, an impressive debut from Joe Root and some typical defiance from Matt Prior and Trott.
If there are any question marks about Pietersen's greatness at this stage of his career - and there really shouldn't be - they focus on his inability to grind out runs in conditions where it is not realistic to counterattack and there are few release options. So that he failed to score from 154 of the 188 balls he faced speaks volumes for his discipline, his sound defensive technique and the begrudging pitch. He scored from only four of the 51 deliveries he faced from Pragyan Ojha.
Root was admirably unflustered. Though not especially tall, no-one in the England team with the exception of Pietersen gets as far forward as Root and few play as straight. His reach and intent provided run-scoring opportunities and at no stage did he allow any frustration to coax him into a rash stroke; even against the tight Ravindra Jadeja, off whom he scored just two singles in 32 deliveries.
Root's stand with Prior - worth 60 at this stage - rescued England from a precarious position and of the five debutants England have utilised this year - Nick Compton, Samit Patel, Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor are the others - his has been the most impressive beginning. It says much about a team in transition and still searching for replacements for Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood that all five are batsmen but Root has already given himself an excellent chance of winning a longer run in the side.
Credit is also due to the England management who selected him. Root would, in normal circumstances, have had to wait behind Bairstow and, perhaps, Eoin Morgan for an opportunity. But, with Graham Thorpe providing encouraging reports about Root's ability to counter spin both last winter - during the Lions and England Performance Programme (EPP) tours - and during his century for the EPP squad a couple of weeks ago, he has leap-frogged his rivals. Bairstow looked unconvincing in Mumbai and Morgan has yet to prove that his struggles against spin in the UAE were an aberration. Root was selected partially as a "horse for the course" and took his opportunity well. It was noticeable that both Bairstow and Patel, though obviously disappointed, congratulated Root warmly as his Test cap was presented by Collingwood.
A glance at the first innings scores in the three previous Tests at the ground would suggest England are still in some trouble. In the first Test here, in 2008, India scored 441 and won heavily; in the second, in 2010, South Africa scored 558 for 6 and won by an innings and in the most recent, in 2010, New Zealand were bowled out for 193 and lost by an innings. But these are not normal conditions. England certainly still have work ahead of them to establish a strong first innings platform but they are not in quite such a precarious position as the scorecard might suggest.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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