India v England, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 5th day March 22, 2006

Leading from the front

The last time England won a series in India, 21 years ago, they came from behind



Andrew Flintoff: typified all that is good about this England side © Getty Images

The last time England won a series in India, 21 years ago, they came from behind. If this too had been a five-Test series perhaps the outcome would have been the same.

England deserved to win this Test not just for their endeavours here but for their approach throughout the series. They were the better side in Nagpur and held their own for half the match in Mohali. In Mumbai they were the better side from the moment Rahul Dravid handed them the initiative by asking them to bat. "I think the grass would have to be knee-deep for me to bowl first," said Andrew Flintoff with reference to Dravid's catastrophic decision.

Flintoff was Man of the Match and the series. Captaincy becomes him, as the added responsibility of fatherhood seems to as well. Twenty-six years ago Ian Botham scored a hundred and took 13 wickets here in the one-off Golden Jubilee Test. But he wasn't captain. Flintoff's performance (100 runs and four wickets) might not have been quite as spectacular as that but it was the epitome of leadership by example.

The satisfaction of a series-levelling win cannot match last summer's Ashes triumph but one sensed from Flintoff's reaction that it comes close. "Last summer was massive but this is definitely up there. We've got a young team and we took it to India. We just said 'let's give it one last push for these five days'. "

It is one of Test cricket's enduring cliches to talk about how difficult it is to play in India. But it is hard to exaggerate England's predicament on this tour. Under pressure after a 2-0 reverse in Pakistan, they lost their captain, vice-captain and a leading strike bowler before the first Test. Coming into the final Test 1-0 down, they lost another of their Ashes-winning bowling attack and on the morning of the match an opening batsman who had made a century in his first Test. One opener had not passed fifty all winter, the other had never opened in a Test. Their side boasted fewer than half the number of Test caps than their opponents and it was less experienced than the one Nasser Hussain captained in Mohali four years ago.

They had a seamer with a career economy rate of almost four runs an over whose last Test was 14 months ago. They had two spinners with five Tests and seven wickets between them. And they won by 212 runs. Coming into the final day, England were marginal favourites ahead of the draw but the suspicion was that they would pay for their slow scoring the previous day.

The early dismissal of Anil Kumble, the nightwatchman, did not tell us much. Getting Wasim Jaffer eight overs later tipped the balance slightly. But Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were still there at lunch and, as Flintoff said, "anything could happen". The collapse after lunch - seven wickets for 25 runs in 15.2 overs - surprised everyone, Flintoff included. "I thought we were in a great position but I thought we'd be scrapping to be honest."

Scrapping they certainly were not. Flintoff cited Mahendra Singh Dhoni's dismissal as the moment when he was sure the game was up. It was an unimpressive effort from Dhoni. He had skied Shaun Udal earlier into what turned out to be no-man's land between mid-on and mid-off while Monty Panesar looked blankly at the sky trying to locate the ball. So what prompted Dhoni to play the same shot two balls later is anyone's guess. This time Panesar pouched it.

Such is Flintoff's selfless nature, he deflected any praise from himself on to his team. "To see the looks of enjoyment and satisfaction on the faces of the lads, knowing that we've scrapped and fought so hard for this over three weeks, is the real highlight for me." He has done all the right things and said all the right things. And now he pops home briefly before the one-dayers to see his new baby son for the first time. He returns with his reputation enhanced yet further.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer