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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sarmad on November 28, 2008, 4:17 GMT

    The unfortunate tendency of every Indian fan is to start bouncing towards the moon whenever their team does anything of particular note. Yes the Indians are on a winning streak but its just a 'streak'. They are by no means a champion side. Most of the current Indian team has been around for years and the same guys got repeatedly walloped home and abroad with consistency. The only reason they are doing well is because other good teams are not that good anymore due to retirements etc. South Africa still retains most of their experienced players and BCCI had to summon a groundsman from hell to beat them in the third test. When all these guys retire, only then can we judge the Indians fairly.

  • Narayan on November 27, 2008, 5:37 GMT

    This is in reply to Mr. Av79. I dont think that "apart from the first game there was no difference bertween the sides". Look at yesterdays game...England could not decide what total would be a competitive one!! Pitch had uneven bounce, still India managed to win!! Well it batted second is'nt it?? Talking about that 22 overs match...India started thinking its 50, changed the gears in the middle and ended with style scoring 60 of last 5. Lets this series atleast...there is a gap too wide between India and England!!

  • andrew on November 26, 2008, 11:16 GMT

    What is all this talk about India being number one in any form of the game? Their away record remains dismal overall, and compares favourably only to their pathetic historical record. They have won one out of their last four Test series, were belted away by Sri Lanka and at home by Australia in ODI's, and could not even make the last eight of the world cup less than two years ago. The odd fleeting victory can not take the mantle of number one away from Australia in the two real forms of the game.

  • John on November 26, 2008, 10:46 GMT

    Mahendra Singh Dhoni is, in my opinion, the best captain in the game right now. He's got a great cricketing brain and he makes the most out of what he's got. He is a big reason why India are playing so well right now. From the looks of it, England just haven't been utilising what they've got. They do have a potentially good side, but their mindset's wrong and they need to rethink their strategies. Anderson and Broad need to bowl fuller (i.e. good length or a little fuller, especially when the ball's newer), and Anderson in particular needs to think better, like an occasional slower ball or yorker to keep the batsmen honest. The batsman also need to start scoring at a more consistent rate and play to the conditions more. It's a real shame Monty Panesar, Dimitri Mascarenhas and Tim Ambrose or Phil Mustard aren't playing - I reckon they would've brought more to the table than some others are doing right now. The ECB and all the higher-ups aren't doing England any favours right now.

  • Avery on November 26, 2008, 8:57 GMT

    What absolute nonsense - as you come to expect from the purely-reactionary Miller. There's no such gulf. India have just won the matches. England put four in a row against South Africa, but that doesn't indicate a "gap too wide" or any such nonsense. Australia got sideswiped 3-0 by New Zealand, but that didn't indicate a 'gap too wide'. Utter stupidity. Really, other than the first match, there's not been much to separate the sides, and the real story (as is almost always the case with cricket in this era) is that India have had the oppotunity to bat first more often than not. I expect nothing less than this kind of insipid reporting from this site or this 'journalist'. The idiotic "England isn't good enough" nonsense seems to ignore the fact that England won the ODI series against India in England last year. Pure nonsense that typically disregards all the nuance of cricket in fabour of an easy-to-understand black-and-white exegesis of the scorecard. Pathetic, as usual.

  • Swapnil on November 26, 2008, 8:46 GMT

    I would surely like to ask Mr. Pietersen and co the reason of keeping Monty out of the ODI team.. If the selectors think him to be good enough bowler for Indian conditions andsee a future in him as a test bowler for some years to come, I think they hv done a huge mistake by not selecting him for the one day series

  • Ratnakar on November 26, 2008, 8:36 GMT

    Hey Mr. ChuckingMuraliMakesMeSick, Have you forgotten the CB Series Triumph in Australia, when we beat Australia in Australia, our India's win in the ODI series in SL? And yes we also won a Test series in WI and England, and beat Australia in Perth, a feat not many touring sides have been able to achieve. Yeah we will need more consistency to become No 1, but for heaven's sake just dont demean the achievements we have been having in recent times. India nowadays plays equally well away, as they do at home. So this tigers at home, lambs abroad is becomming kinda outdated.

  • Hariharane on November 26, 2008, 8:35 GMT

    This is a reply for "ChuckingMuraliMakesMeSick" - I'm sure this person is a blind supporter of Aussie - confirmed by the name. I wonder how could they forget losing the VB Series finals to India(clean sweep in the finals) and losing their dominance over the WACA when India won the Test match after the controversial SCG Test. I just wanted to remind this person that these were India's away performances.

  • karthik on November 26, 2008, 7:52 GMT

    Well.India being the well-deserved one-day side,have beaten Australia in Australia(Remember CB Series) and SriLanka at their home.Even though the pace in test cricket may reduce after Laxman,Dravid and Sachin,we believe Yuvraj,Rohit,Raina and probably M.Vijay could take up the responsibility.They could become the best team in all forms of the game than Australia or any other country.We have the team to beat other countries not only in home but away from home.Dhoni is simply fantastic in leading the team & allowing team members to make decision.India have improved in all departments particularly bowling.During the last decade,many of us would have thought that India is strong in batting but now,they are strong in bowling too.And the fielding from young players has improved a lot except they should have some understanding on the field.Of course Srilanka is one of the best Test teams,we have handled Ajanta Mendis and Murali in one dayers.India could make it possible as the best Test team.

  • V.L on November 26, 2008, 7:07 GMT

    Someone said 'India wins at home and no where else. Remind yourself about Cb series and the Series in Srilanka. I reckon that more than anything else its the leadership that made the difference. Dhoni has always emphasised on playing "fearless cricket". That is the main difference between both the teams.

  • No featured comments at the moment.