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England's first Test tour of India for nine years should have been a delight, an overdue opportunity to sample the cricketing and cultural pleasures of a land seething with life and unpredictability. Instead, it came close to being blighted before a ball was bowled - first by no-shows from three regular players, then by the prickly politics of two countries still carrying plenty of colonial baggage. The cricket might have been incidental, but turned out to be much more interesting than that. Nasser Hussain rose to the challenge of returning to the land of his birth with an inexperienced team and made sure that the Test series, although lost, was close and competitive. The one-day series was even closer, culminating in a dramatic denouement at Mumbai: the abiding image of the tour was of Andrew Flintoff, transformed from a Test reject to a fast-bowling all-rounder, careering round the Wankhede Stadium with his shirt off after clinching a hard-earned 3-3 draw.
Given the overcrowded international programme, it is too easy to carp whenever a player, especially one with children, asks for a break. But it was with sadly predictable timing that the request came from two England players with little inclination to immerse themselves in Indian ways or endure dead Indian pitches. The withdrawal of Alec Stewart and (from the Tests only) Darren Gough left a bitter taste in the mouth which was not assuaged by the fact that both would have returned for the Tests in New Zealand if the management had let them. If Stewart's decision had something to do with needing operations on both elbows, he was also swayed by the allegations - consistently denied - that he had had dealings with illegal Indian book-makers in 1993.
No sooner had the team been picked than September 11 changed the world. For a while it looked as if India's neighbours might be drawn into war and the tour called off altogether; then the ECB announced that it would be left to the individual to decide. Eleven players confirmed that they would go, subject to a (rather token) check on security arrangements by Tim O'Gorman of the Professional Cricketers' Association and John Carr of the ECB. Five expressed doubts - Marcus Trescothick, Andy Caddick, Ashley Giles, Craig White and Robert Croft. On October 30, after the five had been given more time, Caddick and Croft pulled out. Caddick, a father of two, said he had only to cradle his baby (Fraser, born on October 12) in his arms to know he had made the right decision.
The doubters were far from alone - the airline industry worldwide suffered a drastic loss of business, and those who ridiculed the players' jitters often did so as they headed down to the travel agent's to cancel their own holiday. The Foreign Office was advising Europeans in India "to keep a low profile", a phrase that met with disbelief from the players. The ECB was giving out conflicting signals: the chief executive, Tim Lamb, was far more adamant that the tour would proceed than the chairman, Lord MacLaurin. The players were entitled to exercise their freedom of choice, but the wavering seemed to be based less on a realistic assessment of the risks than a vague fear of the unknown. There was a mostly vacuous debate about the dangers of India, where it was imagined that England cricketers might be a target of extremists among the large Muslim minority; and there was some haziness about the proximity of Afghanistan. It was pointed out that the first two Tests were to take place close to the border with Pakistan; it was also pointed out that they could easily be switched, and most Indian cities were further from Kabul than London was from Sarajevo.
When the plane finally landed, matters should have improved. But preparations for the First Test at Mohali were overshadowed by a stand-off between cricket's two most powerful figures: the ICC's Australian chief executive, Malcolm Speed, and the autocratic Indian board president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, whose position was underpinned by Indian TV money. The source of the dispute was India's disgust with the decisions of the ICC referee (and former England captain) Mike Denness in their Test series in South Africa. India had cause to be aggrieved, but to resort to open rebellion against ICC authority, rather than go through the proper channels, was close to anarchy. Speed, determined to present the ICC as a well-run and modern sporting body, had no choice but to assert his authority. When India protested at the one-Test suspension of Virender Sehwag by refusing to accept Denness as referee for the final Test, the ICC had to declare the match unofficial.
Dalmiya embarked, not for the first time, on a display of brinkmanship. It might have played well to India's sense of nationalism and stirred lingering grievances over colonial racism, but it ill served the sport he was supposed to represent. Sehwag had sat out the Centurion match; India insisted that this meant he had served his time, and included him in the squad for the First Test against England. The ICC said that, if he played, they would rule this Test unofficial too; England should - and, all the indications were, would - go home. A compromise was reached with only three days to go: Sehwag was omitted in exchange for a "referees commission", whose constitution, in due course, Dalmiya successfully challenged.
All this took months. The Test series was only three weeks from start to finish, but was absorbing enough to catch the imagination. England were heavily beaten at Mohali, but fought back to have the better of a draw at Ahmedabad, and were well on top when rain ruined the finale at Bangalore. Hussain proved a shrewd and diplomatic leader, tactically astute, imaginative, yet realistic about his team's limitations. He was a polite, intelligent spin doctor with the media, and immensely loyal to what he never tired of reminding everybody was a young side, largely untutored in Asian conditions.
However, Hussain went too far in his attempts to smother India's star batsman, Sachin Tendulkar. First, he instructed his bowlers to aim wide of off stump, to a seven-two or even eight-one field; then, when Tendulkar still made runs, Hussain told Giles (left-arm over) and Andrew Flintoff (right-arm round) to aim outside leg. The tactics had a touch of Douglas Jardine about them, as another England captain, Mike Brearley, remarked - saying that he felt "a deep uneasiness". To oppose these ploys was to goad Hussain into employing them all the more. To question the ability of the 21-year-old wicket-keeper, James Foster, who for all his sparkiness was prone to error, was to draw from Hussain even louder protestations of loyalty. The debate about the handling of Tendulkar was valid: although his scoring-rate slowed to 49 per 100 balls, he still made more runs at a far higher average than anyone else on either side. The concern about Foster's credentials was equally reasonable. Like Mike Atherton before him, Hussain did not lack a stubborn streak.
Inexperience was particularly acute among the bowlers. Matthew Hoggard, after a couple of Tests, suddenly found himself leading the attack. Early in the tour, White admitted publicly that his pace had been slowed by injury; at the same time, Duncan Fletcher had a hunch that England needed the bang-it-in style of Flintoff, who was summoned from the National Academy in Adelaide. Sharing the new ball in the Second and Third Tests, Hoggard and Flintoff showed great discipline and stamina as India's starry batting line-up twice failed to reach 300. The uncapped off-spinner, Richard Dawson, fresh out of Exeter University, recovered well from a couple of early maulings, and Giles shrugged off a long-term Achilles injury to play his part in Hussain's plan. India's scoring-rate over the series, 2.49 runs per over, was markedly slower than England's 2.93.
England's batsmen were caught cold by India's spinners, Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble, at Mohali, where the seamers had been expected to dominate. England played the turning ball with increasing confidence thereafter, pushing Harbhajan and Kumble's joint strike-rate from 36 in the First Test to 58 in the Second and 340 in the Third. Graham Thorpe put up most of the resistance in the closing stages of the First Test, but made an unexpected departure on the eve of the Second. Rarely a contented tourist in recent years, he flew home in a doomed attempt to save his marriage.
Hussain batted manfully throughout; Mark Butcher, although still prone to unforced errors, conquered his weakness against spin; Marcus Trescothick was his usual no-nonsense self, scoring at 57 runs per 100 balls, faster than anyone in the series bar Sehwag (70). Michael Vaughan's bad luck with injury continued, although he didn't help himself by handling the ball when well set at Bangalore. Mark Ramprakash, although contentedly exploring his Indian ancestry, and looking as relaxed as he ever had in an England shirt, could not translate his good form into more than one significant score. Flintoff flopped horribly with the bat, but White resumed his love affair with the subcontinent, playing the spinners as well as any of the top order and reaching his first Test century.
Winning the series gained a little respite for India's captain Sourav Ganguly and coach John Wright after their troubles in South Africa. The selectors dealt them a curious hand for the First Test, supplying a seam attack that was even greener than England's. If Ganguly lost most of the tactical battles, he won the war. He himself was a weak link in the batting, which leant heavily on Tendulkar, but there were runs at different times from all the other big guns plus Deep Dasgupta, the wicket-keeper and makeshift opener, who batted a great deal better than he kept. Sehwag joined Adam Gilchrist as a Test No. 7 with the ability to take the breath away. Even when the seasoned Javagal Srinath returned, England coped comfortably with the quicker bowlers, whose 12 wickets in the series came at a cost of 50 apiece. After starting the series by fielding three seamers on a turning pitch, India ended up playing three spinners on a surface that seamed. Ganguly took the new ball himself with his little dobbers, awakening memories of Eknath Solkar.
To Ganguly's annoyance, it was England who gained more of the acclaim. When Thorpe departed, Hussain and Fletcher were missing five core members of the team that had won in Pakistan and Sri Lanka a year earlier - Atherton, Thorpe, Stewart, Caddick and Gough - but they showed just how much could be done with a cast of understudies. After two bad sessions in the First Test, they were never embarrassed, and with the tail wagging and the bowlers sticking to the plan, they even achieved two hefty first-innings leads. If victory was beyond them, respectability was not.
Lawrence Booth writes: England carried on the good work in January, when they returned to India - reinforced by Thorpe, the refuseniks Gough and Caddick, and a handful of limited-overs specialists - for a six-match one-day series. Few gave them much hope, and when India's openers ran riot at Kanpur to go into a 3-1 lead, a thrashing was on the cards. But England held their nerve, won the last two games by a whisker and nearly reduced Ganguly to tears as he faced the wrath of the Mumbai crowd at the presentation ceremony. For India, a drawn series felt more like a defeat.
Typically, the cricket had been preceded by politicking behind the scenes. Dalmiya's predecessors had agreed to a five-match series, but he demanded six and also wanted to expand England's next tour, in 2005-06, from three Tests to five. If his demands were denied, he threatened that India would play three Tests, not four, in England later in the year. Negotiations carried on until the end of December, when it was agreed that England would play a sixth international, at Cuttack, in a reshuffled schedule, but they offered no concession on the future tour.
The cricket, played in six different cities and in front of packed houses, was vibrant and enthralling. Trescothick captured the mood by blasting over 300 runs at more than a run a ball, and Sehwag matched him for explosiveness. But the final word went to Flintoff, who had been England's thriftiest bowler throughout. With the crowd bubbling in the Wankhede pressure-cooker, he first gave England a total to defend, then steamed in with the ball to precipitate a fatal Indian collapse. His shirt-off shenanigans may not have pleased everyone, but it was a spontaneous response to a seminal moment. England were no longer one-day pushovers.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Northern Districts v England XI at Hamilton, Feb 8, 2002
Tour Match: Northern Districts v England XI at Hamilton, Feb 10, 2002
Tour Match: Otago v England XI at Queenstown, Mar 2-4, 2002
Tour Match: Canterbury v England XI at Christchurch, Mar 7-9, 2002
2nd Test: New Zealand v England at Wellington, Mar 21-25, 2002
Match reports for
Tour Match: Mumbai Cricket Association President's XI v England XI at Mumbai, Nov 18-19, 2001
Indian Board President's XI v England XI at Hyderabad (Deccan), Nov 22-24, 2001
Tour Match: India A v England XI at Jaipur, Nov 27-29, 2001
Tour Match: Cricket Association of Bengal XI v England XI at Kolkata, Jan 17, 2002
3rd ODI: India v England at Chennai, Jan 25, 2002