November 25, 2008

A gap too wide

India and England have been poles apart this series: one is clear-headed and ruthlessly aggressive, the other unsure and stuck in Test mode

Hands on heads has become England's image of the series © AFP

Borrowing words from that notorious fence-sitter, Charles Dickens, England's performance in Bangalore on Sunday was the best of times and the worst of times, all rolled into a neat 22-over-a-side package. Yes they crashed to a 19-run defeat that handed India an unassailable 4-0 lead in the seven-match series, but for eight glorious overs, while Owais Shah and Andrew Flintoff were carting their opponents to all corners of Karnataka, the furrow on Mahendra Singh Dhoni's brow was deeper than the crater in the popping crease after the groundstaff had finished hammering away at the footholes.

And yet … how fleeting the "glory" of those eight overs. It is a sad indictment of the state of England's cricket that their success is currently measurable in units that would barely constitute quarter of a session of a Test match. When the team looks back (through gaps in their fingers) on the events of their first two weeks in India, they'll have Shah and Flintoff's 82-run stand to warm their hearts, along with Stuart Broad's new-ball scalps in the second match in Indore. With India at 29 for 3 in the eighth over of that contest, England had a toehold in the series, but that is all it was. A quick stamp from Yuvraj Singh, and they entered into a freefall from which they showed no hope of recovering.

English naivete in India is hardly a modern phenomenon. Ever since the Calcutta Test of 1992-93, when a four-prong pace attack was pitted (not remotely successfully) against a three-man spin ensemble including a young Anil Kumble, there has been a desperate absence of application from the tourists, both on the field and in the pre-match planning. Nasser Hussain bucked the trend briefly in 2001-02, as did a Johnny Cash-inspired Flintoff in 2005-06, although his achievement in leading England to a famous victory in that year's Mumbai Test was quickly negated by the 5-1 ODI drubbing that followed.

At least England could claim, with some justification, that they were a demob-happy rabble for large tracts of that contest. The 2005 Ashes victory was a recent enough memory to mitigate their limited-overs ineptitude, and a seven-match game of subcontinental hopscotch was the last thing any of the players could be bothered with, let alone the travelling media and the early-rising fans back home.

This time, however, England have arrived in the country with no doubts whatsoever as to the importance of their visit: India are arguably the best ODI team in the world, and the biggest market to boot. Professional and fiscal motivations have abounded since England landed in Mumbai, but you can't imagine anyone queueing up for, say, Ian Bell's IPL signature right now.

The totality of India's triumph has been stunning, but it wasn't until the tempo-change in Bangalore that the reasons for their pre-eminence were revealed. Anyone can win an ODI, but it takes a special team to win a 22-over contest after they had set their stall out to bat for 50

The totality of India's triumph has been stunning, but it wasn't until the tempo-change in Bangalore that the reasons for their pre-eminence were revealed. Anyone can win an ODI (even Zimbabwe came close on Monday) but it takes a special team to win a 22-over contest after they had set their stall out to bat for 50. That was the stunt India pulled off on Sunday, and while Bell has attracted large dollops of vitriol for his funereal approach to the run-chase, the example set by India's cricketers proved impossible to follow.

Rarely has the default mentality of two nations been so starkly contrasted than on Sunday evening. When in doubt (and the Bangalore weather made for plenty of that), India's batsmen reverted to type and went into six-hitting overdrive, while England's batsmen chose straight bats, safety first, and the Test-influenced fallacy of playing oneself in. Ravi Bopara's 1 from 7 balls was an abomination of an innings, Bell devoured seven overs for his first seven runs, and even Shah - the eventual star of England's show - nudged along to 15 from 20 balls before trusting himself to cut loose. The fear of failure was England's overriding concern, and sure enough, as a tactic it failed.

And then there were the Indians, for whom Virender Sehwag - more so even than the man of the moment, Yuvraj Singh - is a totemic influence. As Stuart MacGill once put it, after Sehwag had butchered 195 from 233 balls in the 2003 Melbourne Test, "It's not that he can't pick my bowling, it's just he doesn't care." Sehwag's last 11 Test centuries, dating back to that innings, have been gargantuan affairs: 195, 309, 155, 164, 173, 201, 254, 180, 151, 319, 201 not out, all scored at - or bloody close to - a run a ball. He deserves a place in history as the first truly postmodern cricketer, a player who has taken one tempo and extrapolated it to fit whatever length of contest is required.

No one, therefore, was better placed to boss the Bangalore match, a game that began with Kevin Pietersen's spurious decision to bowl first, so that he could "keep in control of the Duckworth-Lewis calculations". That wasn't a complication Sehwag was prepared to entertain. His first shot of the match was a scorching thwack through the covers to put James Anderson ever more firmly in his place; his first shot of the evening after resumption was a soaring six off Samit Patel. It is safe to assume that his eventual score of 69 from 57 balls would have been roughly the same whatever the format. (And if we're feeling uncharitable, Bell's 12 from 15 balls might have covered all bases as well.)

And yet, it wasn't just Sehwag who enjoyed the thwacking frenzy. Gautam Gambhir eased each of the first deliveries he faced from Flintoff, Broad and Graeme Swann for fours. Yuvraj dallied for two sighters, then launched three of his next six legitimate deliveries into the stands. Dhoni beasted his first delivery over midwicket. Yusuf Pathan drilled his first over the sightscreen. In fact, the only man to buck the trend for India was Sachin Tendulkar, whose 11 from 21 deliveries in the "first" game was a curious throwback. But with 42 ODI centuries to his name already, he is clearly not a man to be taught to suck eggs.

England sucked all right, but sadly they omitted to insert any oeufs. Their failings were universal, because as the hapless Anderson has spent the whole series demonstrating, it's not just the batsmen who've been at fault. The single biggest lesson that the Twenty20 revolution has to offer is that every delivery is "an event". It is no longer about playing the ball on merit, but playing the shot that befits the moment. Sehwag has made a career out of such an attitude, and in Bangalore his colleagues followed suit.

Sehwag is the first truly postmodern cricketer, a player who has taken one tempo, and extrapolated it to fit whatever length of contest is required © AFP

For it wasn't just about starting with a bang, but finishing with a wallop as well. Of the six bowlers England used in that match, three were slapped for sixes from the last balls they bowled, and two - Swann and Pietersen - suffered that indignity off their penultimate deliveries. The only man to maintain discipline, as is so often the case, was Flintoff.

All of the above might have been a coincidence, but somehow I doubt it, because that would mean a belittling of the unsung star of India's show. Zaheer Khan taught England a lesson in their own conditions last year - Ryan Sidebottom admitted he'd never contemplated going around the wicket as a left-arm seamer until he saw the success achieved by his opposite number. On Sunday, Zaheer followed up with a home-school lesson.

His five overs, all bowled during the Powerplays, went for a miserly 20 runs, and included the key wickets of Shah and Patel. When he wasn't doing the job himself, he was coaching his younger colleagues - Dhoni even left him to set the fields when the match reached its midnight tipping point. Bell and Bopara jabbed back his new-ball offerings as if Glenn McGrath had been spirited onto the stage, but half-an-hour later he returned as Darren Gough, swinging yorker after yorker into the blockhole to deny England any opportunity to take the aerial route.

What Zaheer has learnt, and what England's bowlers have yet to fathom, is that line and length is everything. Not any old line and length, but the perfect line and length, ball after ball after ball. In an era when feats of batsmanship are getting more and more outrageous by the day, it's no longer sufficient simply to target good "areas", and hope for the best. There's only one area left to play with.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo