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A supposedly marquee series has grown increasingly surreal and thrown up plenty of questions
August 22, 2011
Harsha Bhogle : India need to sweat the small stuff
Features : Dravid stops the clocks with magnificent defiance
Analysis : Hungry England pursue lasting greatness
Matches: England v India at The Oval
Series/Tournaments: India tour of England
It is not even a month ago, but that magic Monday at Lord's now seems so distant. The series was alive, a Test match was on the line, tickets were going for a song, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were at the crease, there remained the prospect of Sachin Tendulkar's 100th hundred, and the crowd streamed in like they never had in a hundred years. From that day on, the series has grown progressively more surreal.
What do you make of England sauntering to 710 for 7 and India sinking to 130 for 7? Have England somehow managed to combine the might of the West Indians of the '70s and the Australians of the noughties? Or have India turned into the new Bangladesh? Bangladesh might take offence at that suggestion: they did manage to drag a Test to the final session last season in England, and scored 382 in only their second innings of the tour.
Exaggeration aside, this series has suspended our sense of reality. Have England really become awe-inspiringly good, or has India's awfulness made them look so? Conversely, have India, undefeated in a Test series since August 2008 before this, become utterly appalling in a matter of months, or have England dragged them there with the force of their performances?
Some questions within the questions. Has this Indian batting line-up, universally hailed as the finest in recent history, suffered a colossal and collective loss of form, or has it merely been found out? Is Rahul Dravid, who was in the most prolonged slump of his career until about a couple of years ago, twice as good as all of his team-mates in swinging and seaming conditions? Have the conditions really been that tough, or have the Indian batsmen made them look so?
Have England stitched together an attack rivalling the potency of the West Indians, or have they been flattered somewhat in comparison with the Indian bowlers? And subsequently, have England built the mightiest of batting machines, or have they merely plundered the most wretched set of bowlers to have hit these shores in years?
Is Stuart Broad the new Andrew Flintoff? And - can't help this one really - is Amit Mishra a better batsman than he is a bowler?
As always, the truth is perhaps somewhere in between. As Rahul Dravid, the only Indian player to have enhanced his reputation in this series, said in an interview before the final Test, England were always expected to play well in these conditions. "But we expected us to do better."
Dravid's own example bears his case. By the time his work in this series was finally over in the final session of the fourth day, he had batted 965 balls, and in keeping with his status as the man who has batted the most balls in Test history, it is the highest in the series. It has taken enormous skills, powers of concentration, mental toughness, and a sense of mission. Some of the periods he has batted through here must count among the most challenging in his career, but for large parts of his vigils, he has looked untroubled, his judgement of both length and line immaculate, his footwork sure, and his choice of strokes nearly flawless.
When Amit Mishra stuck with him yesterday, defending tightly and then playing a few shots of his own, the matter was put in some perspective. For the first time in many sessions, England had to dig deep for a wicket. Their bowlers misfired occasionally, and Ravi Bopara had to be summoned for an over. India, 103 for 5 overnight, lost only one wicket in over two hours of play. It finally felt like a contest. Of course, the partnership, India's highest in the Test so far, yielded only 87 runs, and to put the gulf between the sides in context, England's highest in the match, between Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, was worth 350.
When Dravid bats, he generally carries the look of a man bearing the weight of the world, but last evening he managed a smile. Stuart Broad had just beaten him with a ball that shaped in, rose and angled away. The smile carried both the recognition that there was nothing he could have done to play the ball, and perhaps also, as Sanjay Manjrekar pointed out, resignation and irony.
Not one ball in the 153 overs that India bowled, a majority of which Dravid spent crouching hopefully at first slip, had anywhere near the venom or threat that that one delivery from Broad did. Awful as they have been, there can be a touch of consideration for the Indian batsmen: the vastness of the gulf between the bowling sides has been very real.
|Is Stuart Broad the new Andrew Flintoff? And is Amit Mishra a better batsman than he is a bowler?|
Apart from Dravid's three hundreds - only 20 times in the history of the game has a batsman scored three hundreds in a series to end up on the losing side - every performance of substance has come from the English players. Pietersen has resurrected his career in splendid fashion; Ian Bell has built a monumental case for the No. 3 spot; Alastair Cook has provided further evidence of his appetite for runs; Matt Prior has turned a couple of good team scores into unassailable ones; each of their quick bowlers has put in match-winning performances, and Graeme Swann is now on the verge of doing so.
Beyond Dravid, and to a smaller extent, Praveen Kumar, India have only flashes to take home. Ishant Sharma's spell before lunch on the fourth day at Lord's; Sreesanth in the first session at Trent Bridge; a beautiful cameo from VVS Laxman in the first innings at Trent Bridge; a few back-foot drives from Sachin Tendulkar; two punchy innings from Mahendra Singh Dhoni; and India's magnanimity in recalling Bell after he had been silly enough to run himself out.
The reality that matters has been in the numbers. So far England have scored 2809 runs in six innings for the loss of 47 wickets at an average of 59.76. India's tally stands at 1890 for 73 at 25.89. That makes England, statistically, more than twice as good as India.
Of course, India could have been better prepared. Of course, the batsmen could have applied themselves better. And of course, they should have been more purposeful in the field. But in the final analysis, India have been out-skilled. Swann's dismissal of Sehwag yesterday evening provided the perfect illustration.
With a king pair and a first-over dismissal behind him, Sehwag was as circumspect and vigilant as he has ever been in his career, playing out maidens, not being baited into playing the uppercut, and not charging down to the spinner. Yet Swann conjured up the offspinner's dream dismissal: the batsman enchanted into the lunging drive, the bat pulling away from pad as the ball dips, and then snaking in through the gap to find the stumps.
It was a poor stroke from Sehwag, driving against the spin on a turning wicket without getting near the ball. But he was drawn into it by the flight and then beaten in the air. That has been the story of the series. England have been merciless in exploiting every Indian weakness.
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