India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 5th day December 15, 2008

England can still walk tall


Panesar's paralysis in conditions that make spinners salivate was a serious concern © Getty Images
 

At the start of this match, it was universally agreed that, win or lose, England would be regarded as victors simply for turning up en masse and playing in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. It's hard to imagine they'll find much solace in that solidarity tonight, after a defeat that scarcely seemed plausible until Virender Sehwag's safe-cracker of an innings on the fourth evening.

Nevertheless, let's give them their due in their hour of disappointment. For five days in Chennai, cricket has been the unequivocal winner, and for that the whole world, and not just the Indian public, should be grateful. Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh may have put the seal on an historic run-chase - the fourth-highest in history, and more than 100 runs better than any previous effort in India - but without England's efforts earlier in the match, there would have been no opportunity for such a magnificent grandstanding finish.

From Andrew Strauss's formidable resolve and Paul Collingwood's appetite for a scrap, via Graeme Swann's sparky debut and a seam-bowling masterclass from the perpetually under-rewarded Andrew Flintoff, England provided a core of cricketers who rose above the confused circumstances of this contest, and demonstrated that the 5-0 beating they received in the one-day series was not the true reflection of the state of the game in the old country.

In the final analysis, however, their best efforts were trumped with vigour by a team that took its time to be roused to the same intensity levels that were on display against Australia two months ago, but - with the mark of a champion team - produced them nonetheless when it most mattered. For Sachin Tendulkar, a Mumbaikar born and bred, to seal the deal in such a glorious fashion was a moment that transcended the pain of defeat. England's players will look back one day and be grateful that they were there. And that's not something they thought they'd be saying two weeks ago.

Tendulkar's innings was his 41st Test century but, quite possibly, his finest yet. Only minutes have passed since the players left the field and so a more considered reflection must wait for another day. But, when you consider the scale of the chase he completed, and factor in the murmurings that have accompanied his previous anonymity during India's greatest performances, there is a definite case to be answered.

The theatre of those final moments was something else as well. The eruption of emotion that greeted his winning hit brought to mind Steve Waugh's last-ball-of-the-day hundred at Sydney in 2003 - then as now, the acclaim for one of the true legends of the game has rarely seemed louder or more heartfelt.

The Man-of-the-Match award, however, quite rightly went to Sehwag, who brutally transcended the pitch conditions to make that last-day heist possible. Once he had wrenched the safe doors open, India resumed the final day needing a mere 256 to win - at which point the skills and certainties of their one-day education came flooding into the foreground. In fact, a change in mentality overcame both sides because, for the first time in the match, there was a finite target to be focussed upon, rather than a nebulous balance between time, runs and wickets.

England found that balance especially hard to get right during their momentum-squandering second session on the fourth day when they mustered just 57 runs, although it would be wrong to pin their defeat on that passage of play - with Zaheer Khan in the zone and swinging the ball both ways, a more forceful approach could well have resulted in a smaller target and even more time to chase it. And then what would Ian Botham have had to say?

Nobody, however, benefited more from the certainties of the impending finish than Yuvraj Singh. Roughed up and ripped out by Flintoff and Steve Harmison in the first innings, today he was able to fix his thoughts on that distant figure of 387, and treat the whole day like an extension of his imperious one-day campaign. What is more, the effect worked both ways, because the impact on Kevin Pietersen's fledging captaincy was detrimental as well. Suddenly there were gaps in the field and singles to be snaffled, as England found themselves unable to attack with the same fearlessness that their first-innings dominance had permitted.


A seam-bowling masterclass from the perpetually under-rewarded Andrew Flintoff was one of the highlights for England in the first Test © Getty Images
 

Pietersen was not helped by a rusty bowling performance in which only two men, Swann and Flintoff, ever looked like genuine wicket-taking options. At this juncture, it is only fair to insert their mitigating circumstances - the chaotic (and cricket-free) build-up to the Test match may have helped some of the players to clear their minds, but for those bowlers who need overs to establish their rhythm - Harmison and Panesar in particular - it was self-evidently detrimental.

Nevertheless, for the second time in three Tests, starting with Graeme Smith's Edgbaston epic in August, England have failed to defend a seemingly impregnable fourth-innings target. And whether he was match-fit or not, Panesar's paralysis in conditions that make spinners salivate was a serious concern. His inability to bowl dot balls left Pietersen with no option but to remove his close fielders, and when he set about bowling into the rough outside Tendulkar's leg stump, he did so with little conviction. If Stuart Broad is ready to return at Mohali, one of India's most seamer-friendly surfaces, there's no question on current form which of the spinners would have to make way for him.

But ultimately, it would be wrong for England to gaze at their navels right now. The team as a whole should walk tall in the brief interlude between matches, safe in the knowledge that their mere presence has helped, not only to lift the mood of a nation after last month's atrocities, but to promote the pre-eminence of Test cricket at precisely the moment it needs all the good publicity it can get. Right now, India are the team to beat in world cricket, in all forms of the game. An under-prepared England team gave it their best, and provoked the best possible response.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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