November 30, 2012

England have found resolve and character

Their captain's second-innings hundred in Ahmedabad infused self-belief in the side. But were India complacent about their superiority on these pitches?

You see it in sport all the time, don't you? Teams just slipping over the line between creating conditions to suit themselves, which is acceptable, and believing in their invincibility in the conditions thus created. "Leave the grass on and have a drink on the fourth day," the grizzled, hard veterans in the pubs will say. "Turner re, from first morning... no chance," their counterparts, sipping cutting chai, will proclaim in an Irani restaurant. Sometimes players can get caught up in such scripts too. The groundsman is anointed the match-winner.

It cannot be so, and there is a sense of joy in the sports lover when the contrary scenario unfolds.

Did India get caught up in thinking that it wasn't 11 players but 22 yards that would win them the series? Having struggled against bounce and pace, did they allow themselves to believe that turn was all that was needed to return the compliment? Somewhere, did a hurt ego seek comfort in a larger ego? Did India commit the cardinal sin in sport of underestimating the opponent?

In life, as in sport, when you belittle the opponent, he turns around and bites you. India have done it to others and, I greatly fear, it was done to them in Mumbai.

There are many qualities that line up in a contest. Skill is the most obvious one, but resolve is a stronger one to possess. When conditions are against you, teams can either slip into despair and hopelessness - which is what England have tended to do on the subcontinent - or they can give birth to resolve, which England, I suspect, discovered within themselves. It is a sign of character, and Alastair Cook and the team that played in Mumbai showed a lot of it.

The Test match in Mumbai reminded me of two other games in recent years. I was in Perth in 2008 when, after the unsavoury, even unbecoming, drama of the Sydney Test, a bouncy track was unveiled to the tourists. India were meant to lose in three days, in part to the bounce, in part to the disappointment of the result in Sydney. But courage can sometimes sit alongside adversity, and India produced one of their finest performances to beat Australia at their game. In 82 overs of pace in the first innings, Australia's feted four-pronged attack took 9 for 261. India's relatively inexperienced bowlers, in the same conditions, bowled 38 overs and took 8 for 165. Irfan Pathan, RP Singh and Ishant Sharma did in Perth what Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann did in Mumbai. It wasn't skill alone. It was resolve, for India were strong in Australia.

As they were in South Africa in 2010-11. In Centurion, India were bowled out for 136 and on the same surface South Africa amassed 620 for 4. India made 459 batting a second time, and while they lost by an innings and 25 runs, and familiar talk was heard, they had shown themselves that they could play. So they competed in the second Test in Durban, again on a surface that Indians are normally expected to turn their backs from. VVS Laxman ground out 96 and Zaheer Khan stood firm for 27 in a partnership of 70 that was the difference between the two teams. A fighting loss had generated belief and resolve and had overcome a traditional weakness in skill.

Will England be lulled into thinking that the peak has been conquered? If they do, resolve will be vanquished by complacence, guts by smugness

That is what England did in Ahmedabad. Had they folded up in the second innings there, they would have found in the same Wankhede surface unspeakable horrors. They would have been spooked, the series would have been over, the cutting chai in the Irani restaurant might have been sipped on the third evening.

But Cook's second-innings century prepared the team for the innings Kevin Pietersen played in Mumbai. Pietersen's innings will be talked about for many, many years. Young men not yet old enough to be fathers will recall it to their grandchildren, but Cook produced the resolve that created the conditions for genius to flower.

The teams go to Kolkata level on paper, but the demons in the mind that control fortunes have migrated to India. India will be tested, because, in this wonderful see-saw that a longish series allows, they now need to be resolute. England will be tested just as much, for winning can deceive too. Will England be lulled into thinking that the peak has been conquered? If they do, resolve will be vanquished by complacence, guts by smugness. If, however, they can keep victory at arm's length, as they did defeat in Ahmedabad, they could give themselves a shot at history.

To think that if we had those maddening two-Test series, the untold joys that I hope lie before us would have never been possible. I like the spontaneity and exuberance of T20, but this vast canvas of strengths and frailties, this exhibition of character has me hooked.

I look forward to seeing the great skills these teams possess in Kolkata and Nagpur, but even more, I look forward to seeing how they approach the many different situations that Test cricket thrusts them into. And I will hope to be reassured that it is 11 men who produce the results, not 22 yards of turf.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here