England v India, 4th npower Test, The Oval August 22, 2011

Are England great or India wretched?

A supposedly marquee series has grown increasingly surreal and thrown up plenty of questions

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.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 26, 2011, 13:40 GMT


    Talented cricketers available for a country which is safe and where people would visit without fear....only problem they fight a lot and quit at drop of a hat. Tantrums galore with talent...any nation interested please contact Pakistani cricket board

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2011, 4:33 GMT

    W A N T E D !!! Talented cricketers required for a National Team! Ideal candidates must be capable of playing good cricket other than Home Grounds particularly on foreign pitches. Experience in playing ENGLISH CONDITIONS will be an added advantage!! Apply to... Indian Cricket Board!!

  • Mushtaque on August 24, 2011, 13:57 GMT

    I just want to say is that some of these indian fans are kidding themselves, when they say that England are not No.1. Stats don't lie and England are the best REAL CRICKET team in the world at the moment and have been steadily climbing up the rankings over the past couple of years by playing excellent cricket. They have been consistent in their play and the nearest team to them in quality are the South Africans. A measure of what a good team is not just the 1st eleven, QUALITY in depth is what is required and that is what the great Australian and West Indies teams of the past have had.

  • Bryn on August 24, 2011, 9:12 GMT

    Right Paddock ---sorry i think youve got me wrong. i agree with you completely, im not talking retropectively. maybe what i wrote didnt come out right. england are overrated and are far from a great side and will be thumped in series against decent sides then in the ashes 2013- thats what i was getting at.

  • Brat on August 24, 2011, 7:26 GMT

    Indian Cricketers in the aftermath of World Cup win & euphoria that came with it did not show sufficient DESIRE to win this MARQUEE Series. The two players who were not part of that setup [Rahul-DRAVID & PRAVEEN-Kumar] were the only ones to turn up well prepared. If these overpaid, underperforming, pampered cricketers had DESIRE [as they call FIRE in the BELLY] they would have prepared better by skipping IPL. As Steven James [former Glamorgan opener said] Gautam-GAMBHIR's & SEHWAG's failure was a cricketing equivalent of JUSTICE SYSTEM for being seduced by the IPL money and not recuperating from injuries in time for this series. As they say "You REAP what you SOW".

  • rahul on August 24, 2011, 2:47 GMT

    Eng great or Ind wretched? Ans: Both. Well maybe India were not wretched, more like unfit, old, and unprepared. Depending on who you are talking about.

  • Billy on August 23, 2011, 23:42 GMT

    @YorkshirePudding, I understand your point, and perhaps the hallmark of this potential great English side will be that every one of their batsmen fulfils their role in the side (hence my point about the terrific balance in the English lineup at the moment). However, they still need the "Great" or "Greats" to stand up. The potential is all there in front of them. Trott is the most likely but it's early days for him. KP had his chance to be the great, and now that he seems to have sorted his head out, maybe he could be the one. Bell has completely turned his career around from being overrated to underrated which is amazing in itself. And Cook is still so young. So yeah, all the hallmarks of a great batting side.

  • Mohsin on August 23, 2011, 22:42 GMT

    @friendly fire Do u really think bcci gives the players a choice to choose betwn ipl nd nation nd the onus nd blame rests on the players? Wake up mate. Bcci owns the ipl nd wudnt want it to b a failure by the absence of top players. Players r forced to play the ipl by bcci as the franchise nd broadcasters want to recover their exhorbitant money which bcci has charged them. So the conflict of interest is within the bcci not the players. Blame bcci who love the line-players can rest whenever they want during india series bt schedules will remain the same. Boycott clt20 nd ipl5. Only then will bcci come to its senses

  • Dummy4 on August 23, 2011, 22:40 GMT

    @jonesy2 - the Aus teams of 2005 & 2009 lost the Ashes, those teams included Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Glichrist and a couple of blokes named McGrath & Warne, they were NOT Easy Beats. England lost the 2007 series for same as reason as India just lost, lousy preparation and too much emphasis on a couple of "star" players - Flintoff & KP. I don't think the current Aussie team is as bad as the Test rankings indicate; remember the drubbing they dished out to the Poms in Perth wasn't on a typical WACA wicket, and they've just won the ODI series in SL. Only old HasBeens and young WannaBees should be allowed to play TwinkyTwinky Cricky.

  • Phil on August 23, 2011, 22:05 GMT

    @serious-am-i: agree teams should have good quality replacements in all departments. However, since very other test side has at least one bowling weak link in it's first XI, I don't think you can criticise England.

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