India v England, 2nd Test, Mohali, 5th day March 13, 2006

Time to get a bit nasty

Paul Coupar on England's defeat at Mohali

Andrew Flintoff embodied all that was good about England. But they needed more bite © Getty Images
To misquote the playwright Alan Bennett, bloody-mindedness is not quite a virtue, but it belongs to the other ranks of determination. And downright nastiness is no virtue at all. These are the attributes that dare not speak their name. But in sport, as in life, they can come in damn handy.

England tried very hard at Mohali. How they tried! After a relentless and varied attack demolished their first innings, Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones diligently built it up again, with a century partnership. Steve Harmison bowled as well as he has for seven months while the Indian tail lashed top-edge after missed swat and built a dispiriting lead.

Skill and sweat found their embodiment in Flintoff. By the end he stood red-faced and panting at slip. He had good reason to look knackered, as his side's top run-scorer, with 121, and wicket-taker, with four. A thumping nine-wicket defeat exaggerated the gap in skill and hideously distorted a non-existent mismatch in effort.

But a bit less milk and honey in the veins might just have disturbed India's poise. England lacked bloody-mindedness, that desire to bat on and on and on, not even because it is necessary but simply because. Three hundred runs in the first innings was not enough. And they lacked downright, dirty nastiness - that willingness, even desire, to make someone feel bad.

Still, even with those dubious qualities, England could well have lost. India were superb. Visiting sides already have to contend with harrying spinners and inexorable batsmen; the emergence of a fast reverse-swinging bowler in Munaf Patel was a nightmare come true.

The fourth day was crucial. It felt a little like the scene in EM Forster's novel, A Passage to India, where Adela Quested emerges from a deeply queer experience in India's Marabar caves, feeling numbed, unsure what had happened and with a strange ringing in her ears. Yesterday, with its horns and haunting experiences, was England's Marabar day.

Everything seemed against them: Kumble's inspired form, the noise, the bouncy pitch, fate even. To fail to shift the tail and then to lose five batsmen in a session seemed perfectly reasonable given the oppressive atmosphere. What England needed in reply was something totally unreasonable. To get angry. For someone to say: This will not happen. Not here. Not today.

In short, they needed a Nasser Hussain, someone to bawl, when the eighth person wandered absent-mindedly behind the bowler's arm: "Look mate, I'm in charge here. And if I say sit down, bloody well sit down."

It is something you can imagine Simon Jones doing. He was badly missed, as much for his bark as the bite that made him last year's most incisive Test bowler. His fiery qualities characterised both of the most recent teams to conquer India at home. South Africa in 1999-2000 were spikily led by Hansie Cronje. And Australia in 2004-05 ruthlessly targeted India's weak links with ball and words.

Perhaps England are too painfully aware of the bad impression they have created in the subcontinent before, almost paranoid about doing the right thing. And of course, getting angry might have come to nought anyway. Steve Waugh's great team, hardly saps, were soundly beaten in 2000-01.

Given Waugh's humbling experience, to lose in India would be no disgrace. To avoid it England must now win in Mumbai. And in that goal they were hampered today. Even in a losing cause, scratches scored on the opposition are rarely wasted: last summer Kevin Pietersen's half-centuries in defeat at Lord's gave England belief at Edgbaston. Ditto Flintoff's pyrotechnic Lord's hundred against the South Africans two years before. But rather than rage against the dying of the light, a tired side ended up bowling Paul Collingwood's dobbers and let Virender Sehwag hit a stream of runs, after a trickle in recent innings. He is a confidence player and when he's confident he scores big.

At Mumbai England face a formidable opponent. They could maintain their skill and effort, add nastiness to outdo Allan Border and wilfulness to match Arjuna Ranatunga. And still it might not be enough.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer and will be covering the first two Tests for Cricinfo