India v England, 2nd Test, Mohali, 4th day December 22, 2008

Fortune favours the cautious

A two-Test rubber was always going to sell this series short, but only now do we get an idea of quite how short

Stuart Broad removed Rahul Dravid, but thereafter India shut up shop © AFP

It is such a great pity that England's Test series with India is almost over before it has begun. At the end of a year that will forever be associated with the Twenty20 boom, the game's oldest and greatest format has been enjoying a timely spike in popularity in recent weeks, thanks to two of the finest matches in recent memory, at Chennai and at Perth. But up at Mohali, the embers of a contest are dying as quickly as the wintery evening sun, thanks in no small part to an itinerary that has encouraged a closed-shop mentality from the hosts.

A two-Test rubber was always going to sell this series short, but only now do we get an idea of quite how short. Kevin Pietersen's world-weary demeanour at the close of the third day's play was revealing, not only for the clear emotion he felt at squandering two late wickets, but also for the knowledge that England's last chance in the series had been and gone. One-nil up and with a sizeable lead in the bank, India's approach on the fourth day was understandable but disappointing. Double or quits is not a game worth playing if the rewards of pushing for a series clean sweep don't outweigh the risks of being pegged back to 1-1.

On the one hand, England made a rod for their own backs. Notwithstanding the brilliance of Pietersen's century, his side still contrived to lose their last six wickets for 22, a collapse of mid-1990s proportions from which they should not really have been able to escape. And had this been the second match of a five- or even a three-Test series, you can be fairly certain that Mahendra Singh Dhoni's response would have been swift and to the point. Momentum is there to be seized upon in Test cricket, especially when you've got a batting line-up that drips with quite as much class as India's.

Alas, the rules invariably change in two-Test series, which are abominations on two counts. Either they are hideously uncompetitive, unenthusiastic affairs designed to fulfil the requirements of the Future Tours Programme, or they are over so quickly that the established rhythms of Test cricket are not given time to take hold.

Right now, this series should be at fever pitch. England would be down but quite clearly not out, a fact best epitomised by the delicious rivalry between Yuvraj Singh, Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, which would have enough friction to ignite even the deadest of rubbers. Today, however, Yuvraj faced only two deliveries from Flintoff before his spell had to come to an end. It was the single biggest anticlimax of the day, not least because we know that their battle might not be properly rejoined until India tour England in 2011.

Having avoided that mini-battle, Yuvraj went on to put the decisive stamp on the day's play. His innings bristled with the sort of point-to-prove aggression that Pietersen had himself shown on Sunday, and carried India clear of a potential embarrassment at 80 for 4. Their approach up until then, however, had been incoherent. There was no central strategy underpinning their approach, especially when Virender Sehwag, their most clear-headed batsman, ran himself out cheaply. Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar seemed to forget they were back in form with a pair of geriatric performances, while Gambhir the anchorman ground along diligently, waiting in vain for a colleague to dictate the pace

India took much the same attitude at The Oval in 2007, when they followed a whopping first-innings advantage of 319 with a panicky scoreline of 11 for 3, and ultimately ground through a further 58 overs to set a target of 500. Partially, of course, their approach, then and now, must be seen as a sign of respect. Pietersen scored a trouble-free century as England eased to 369 for 6 in that chase, and recent events have confirmed the suspicion that fourth-innings targets aren't as daunting as they used to be. Even so, fortune ought to favour the brave in Test cricket. Right now it favours the cautious.

There is still time, of course, for England to lose this match, in which case India's approach will be amply justified by hindsight, but it's hard to see that happening now. England themselves turned South Africa over in two sessions at Johannesburg in 2004-05, although that feat required both a sensational morning of declaration-inducing strokeplay from Marcus Trescothick, and of course the urgency of a side that had lost the previous Test by 196 runs and was hungry to make swift and decisive amends.

You don't sense that hunger has come into India's thinking very much in this Test, and the net result is that everyone will go home slightly empty. So many strands of the narrative are crying out for development, but instead they will have to be scraped into the recycling bin. Has Yuvraj really cracked Test cricket? Is Flintoff back to his best? Are Dravid and Tendulkar holding their team back or providing the ballast to drive it forward? All these questions and more could have been answered over the course of a proper old-school Test series. Instead, they seem destined to remain obscured in Mohali's fog.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ayush on December 23, 2008, 16:25 GMT

    "What's wrong with you Mr. Miller? Who are you calling timid? The Indians who chased down the target of over 350 in Chennai? Or the Indians who won the one day series 5-0? Or Yuvi, who is tackling the everyday verbal bullshit by KP and Freddie by fours and sixes?"

    I think he means the Indians that could have brought on a very interesting Day 5 where both teams could have won, but instead produced what to me seemed like the most boring and annoying day in the history of Test Cricket. India were in a very strong position when they were batting in the 2nd inning, and could have made sure the match was theirs to win, instead they approached it so defensively that the only entertainment was Dhoni trying to bowl ... even KP admitted at the end of Day 3 that "we [England] are out of this [match]", why India didn't go for the win is beyong my comprehension (I'm waiting for someone to make me understand)

  • p on December 23, 2008, 9:44 GMT

    Here we go again... If it wasn't so ridiculous ,it would actually be funny. After a good series against Australia where Tendulkar came good almost every time when it was really required. And after a superb innings in his last match at Chennai,he then has one bad match...and suddenly he is holding the team back!? Really...what is it with you people anyway?

  • g on December 23, 2008, 8:20 GMT

    Anyone who says India is No.1 team, just ask urself one simple question - when was the last time India won even 5 tests on the trot?? forget about winning 16 or 17 like the Aussies or remaining unbeaten for 9 consecutive test series like SA. While an aussie team would all out for a white wash even after they are 4-0 up in a 5 match series, we can see Dhoni so satisfied even with 1-0 in a 2 match series. Yes, India have won a couple of games recently but to call someone No.1 you have to have the hunger to win every match - not playing negative tactics when u can do nothing to the opposition.

  • g on December 23, 2008, 8:16 GMT

    I lost every inch of appreciation I had for Dhoni after seeing his negative tactics - bowling so wide of offstump to Aussies. And he is repeating it here again with England. If England also did the same fault as him I would still attribute it to Dhoni cos he is the one who has set a bad example. To me, whether you win or lose a match is secondary in comparison to how u play the game and in that context Dhoni has been an awful, consistent loser - doesn't matter what the record shows. To me he will always be someone who didn't have the guts to play with right spirit and win the game. The biggest joke I ever heard is from Zaheer khan when he said this Indian team is 'aggressive'...may be he should refer to some dictionary or talk to a few spectators to understand what 'aggressive' means.

  • Ranil on December 23, 2008, 5:03 GMT

    Dravid and Tendulkar are certainly holding the team back. They should have played aggressively to try and force a win. India killed the game by being over cautious in the 2nd innings. It's not cricket and explains the poor crowds.

  • Gaurav on December 23, 2008, 4:27 GMT

    I am not going in the discussion of how India approached their second innings but I definitely agree that these two-test series are not able generate the kind of contest that we expect in a Test series. It is dead just when it started to blossom. Lose the first match and then the only thing you can do is to draw the series. There is no way of winning it. This is so ridiculous. All this is being done to adjust those T-20 leagues which started by saying that they will not affect current tours but all the boards are going after only money. All in all, I am not amused by the concept of two-match series. There is not enough contest that we are used to see in a test series.

  • Krishnendu on December 23, 2008, 4:07 GMT

    I must commend Andrew for some terrific writing. "...So many strands of the narrative are crying out for development" ... indeed. That is the thing about good sports it should be mythic in its story-making potential. Otherwise, it is just a game and none of us would be so drawn to it.

    A two-test series does not provide enough narrative plot points. May be just a good enough short-story that has to be aborted before a novel... much, much, before a good novel. About the themes themselves Andrew has said aloud what needs to be said: Yuvraj is back into this form of the game; Fintoff is perhaps set to reap for a little while; Monty is out; Rahul and Sachin do appear geriatric... may be it is time to let go; and the meek shall inherit the earth, unfortunately...

    On a related theme, as an Indian fan I don't think we should be so defensive about our team as so many of the other commentators have been rushing to defend everything they do. Let them earn our love a little.

  • andrews on December 23, 2008, 3:56 GMT

    England, in fact, lost the Test prior to Johannesberg by 196 runs. Miller is as accurate with this as a previous comment that India are the team to beat in all forms of the game.

  • srikant on December 23, 2008, 3:16 GMT

    Is this not a team game? Then why does the media point fingers at individual players? Dravid and Tendulkar really do not need to prove their abilities and class to anyone. Taking individual contributions into account, Sehwag also has only one performance ('match winning' ) in this series so have many other players who have put in atleast one good batting performance right upto Harbhajan Singh & Mishra.

    There would have been some game plan, if India really wanted to go for a Do or die, Dhoni could have come at 3 (his best performances have at that position)& sent Dravid at No 10. There was no need for adopting the standard line.

    Stop the blame game, these players are one of the finest the game has ever seen and it may be a long, long time, you would see players of the class of Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly & Laxman all of whom are nearing the end of their careers.

  • Abhijit on December 23, 2008, 3:06 GMT

    I just can't believe Cricinfo approved such a title "Fortune favours the timid". What's wrong with you Mr. Miller? Who are you calling timid? The Indians who chased down the target of over 350 in Chennai? Or the Indians who won the one day series 5-0? Or Yuvi, who is tackling the everyday verbal bullshit by KP and Freddie by fours and sixes? May be you need to ponder over the overall sequence of match events and Indian team's game plan so far in the second test. There is a difference between being aggressive and foolish !

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