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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Keith on December 17, 2008, 5:31 GMT

    We all got to salute England, or should we salute the ICC for the influence to make England tour India. After all the ICC is well aware that India pumps the highest $$$. Which ever way the conslusion is simple the ICC & the ECB will earn the $$$ and India will move up the rankings. As for the game of cricket, it's the back seat.

  • andrew on December 17, 2008, 4:41 GMT

    I disagree with you and the mom adjudicator. Strauss should have won the man of the match award.

    It's not even a matter of opinion regarding your other contentious point. To say India are the team to beat in both forms of the game is ridiculous. They can't even be considered in the top 2, regardless of what they do at home. Their overseas record has been improved, but only from non-existent to merely abysmal. They are unstable and inconsistent, and it is hard to work out how you can make such an assessment, until I remember such gems you have written before as Australia are in trouble in the ashes series of 2006/07.

  • Karan on December 17, 2008, 3:02 GMT

    Hats off to England for being able to come to India amid lots of pressure and make us see this brilliant game. Really, they could have won, but India just had that extra 1%. This is one of the best matches I have seen in a long time. England have improved dramatically over the ODIs

  • abhishek on December 16, 2008, 19:12 GMT

    English cricketers are really very very brave herted and very irasciable for thier decision to return for test matches.I salute thier cricketing spirit.Cricket has won again.Thanks to our past rulers....but i would advise them to be prepared to get a 2-0 thrashing ....yeah very sportingly with no hard feelings.It has just due to the fact that every member of this cricket team (ok except amit mishra and to some extent ishant) can win a game sigle handedly for India.Thats 9 out of 11 for simply can not cope with 9 match -winners in a single team.Hail the NEW Incredable INDIA....but yes again thank you the english gentlemen for giving us this game of cricket

  • Rimtu on December 16, 2008, 18:55 GMT

    Yes Mr. Miller. Definitely. No matter how many matches England lose, they should continue to stand tall, otherwise they wouldn't get paid, and forget getting picked for IPL. I have no kudos for England deciding to tour India. Without the pending IPL lure, I know not a single soul in the team would even have second thoughts. I don't remember them wanting to tour Pakistan after a blast there. KP and co. might fool the naive folks with their generosity to tour and then dedicating their match fees for the victims. Great gesture, only if you didn't know how much match fees they are sacrificing with the hope it helps them land multi-million dollar IPL deals. So, standing tall is definitely necessary for the time being. Besides these are all warm-up matches for the real test of Ashes. So, it's okay to lose a few or all warm-up matches. It's just keeping them safe and healthy for the real deal. Go pompoms!

  • Ashok on December 16, 2008, 17:18 GMT

    England has every reason to be proud even in defeat. They turned up despite the terrorist threats. KP went for a win all the way and never adopted negative tactics like Ponting did with his 7-2 field. England played the game in the right spirit which itself is something to be proud of. Despite Sehwag's superb blitz, England still had a chance to win even after Laxman's dismissal on the final day. They needed to turn their bowling by a couple of notches to get Yuvraj out but did not rise to the occasion.We can always analyse the reasons for an England loss till the cows come home, after such a commanding position right upto Tea time on the 4th day.India rose to the occasion as a team and showed their batting strength in no uncertain terms. India always believed in themselves and were better prepared mentally.England batting needs to be more aggressive and the bowlers have to pitch the ball in the right spots to square the series.Even in defeat, England did themselves & Cricket proud.

  • Atul on December 16, 2008, 14:01 GMT

    England did a fantastic job of regrouping and have clear aims after their hammering in the one-day series. It required the time off to know where they went wrong as a unit. However, to me, this England Test team still feels like one who can intermittently upset results (like the fourth test against SA) but won't be consistent for a while, regardless of the hype experienced here in England.

    They definitely have the resources and the leadership; the only missing ingredient is the time for this new combination to find regular success. I still back Panesar over Swann in English conditions. Having said this, I think that come the Ashes, England will absolutely be favourites, since playing in India is obviously very different to home conditions.

  • Ajay on December 16, 2008, 11:45 GMT

    England played positive cricket against highly experienced Indian Side. India won as Virendra Shewag was turning point in India's victory. Both teams played well. England's team is still young team. Good luck to England for Mohali test.

  • Sage on December 16, 2008, 10:48 GMT

    Congratulations to India, It was one of the most electrifying cricket games I have seen lately. Well, a game like this makes me wonder how can a twenty over game be better than test cricket. In test cricket it gives two teams to play natural at top level and the players to show of how excellent they are in every department of batting, bowling, fielding. I just felt when England lost the wicket of Collingwood in the second innings the wind changed towards India. And I was really expecting a charge from Sehwag on the 4th day before stumps and it happened, the rest was history. Tendulkar and Yuvraj guided India to a magnificent victory. I don't see England will walk tall in India. They were very lucky to have played only five limited over games out of seven otherwise, India would have routed England seven - zero. India did not played well in the first innings so England was on top. But right now England is no match for India. It will be very tough for any team to defeat India right now.

  • Thejus on December 16, 2008, 10:36 GMT

    Big hand to KP and his team for coming back to India! It was tough for them to taste defeat in this test from that emphatic position they were and for the Indians it was something special. But in the end Cricket, the sport won despite of the terror attacks. Sachin dedicated his century to the victims who suffered in the Mumbai attack. Hats off to him! And thanks to Sehwag for that sensational start and Yuvi our 20-20 hero for that fantastic finish! For the English team, they discovered a new spinner, Swann which is the positive thing that they can take from this game!

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