Series Review

India v England, 2005-06

Simon Wilde

Test matches (3): India 1, England 1

One-day internationals (7): India 5, England 1

If England's recent cricket has had a signature note, it is the determination to scrap in adversity, and this trait has rarely been better tested - or exhibited - than it was in India. Two days before the Test series opened, they found themselves in such dire straits that it would have been no surprise had they been vanquished 3-0. Yet, under their third-choice captain, they recovered from brutal losses in personnel and a 1-0 deficit to draw the series. It was no more than they deserved, and possibly something less.

England coach Duncan Fletcher rated the victory in Mumbai, by a makeshift eleven, as highly as anything achieved overseas in his six and a half years in charge: Karachi and Colombo in 2000-01 and Johannesburg 2004-05 came to mind, but here the tribulations were far worse. In crisis, the side instinctively rallied around their star and stand-in leader, Andrew Flintoff, but the result was also a tribute to the organisational skills of Fletcher and his backroom staff, and the fitness and professionalism of the new breed of emerging England player.

March and April, as the weather gets ever warmer, are a testing time to play cricket on the subcontinent, but England's conditioning allowed them to keep pace with India during the Tests. Later, as the furnace-like conditions took their toll and their antipathy to the short game once again manifested itself, their own form went cold. It was a predictable and forgivable end to a tour that proved even harsher than expected.

Fletcher described the week leading up to the First Test as his toughest since he took the job. Having seen Ashley Giles ruled out of the tour altogether after failing to recover from hip surgery, he suffered the loss of Michael Vaughan, the captain, Marcus Trescothick, his deputy, and the influential bowler Simon Jones. Like Giles, Vaughan had attempted to come back too soon from surgery, on his right knee, while the injury-prone Jones fell to a new complaint, cartilage damage to his left knee.

Trescothick's early departure was among the strangest ever from a touring side. On the final day of the second warm-up, he suddenly left, without a word of clarification to the wider world. ECB officials declined to explain, even to his team-mates, although the general understanding was that he was returning in response to a crisis call from home. Indeed, the officials seemed uncertain of the cause themselves, and at first were hoping he would return any moment.

It was not until the Tests were over that Trescothick spoke publicly, but then he confused the issue by blaming a virus (he had been laid low early on by flu) though he also spoke of burnout. Meanwhile, ECB sources started to indicate discreetly that he had suffered some sort of emotional breakdown, aggravated by the prospect of being burdened with the captaincy for the rest of the tour: his exit came three days after Vaughan's knee trouble had flared up. It seemed that what Trescothick needed as much as anything was time at home with his wife and baby daughter; it was calculated he had been away an average of 250 nights a year for six years, and the only surprise for many observers was that modern cricket had not claimed more victims in this manner.

While this bewildering series of blows fell, there was a fitness crisis of the sort that had bedevilled several Ashes tours. England fielded 23 different players in India, not counting assistant coach Matthew Maynard, who came on when they were down to ten fit men. Substitute duties apart, a support staff criticised in some quarters as oversized must have been fully stretched. It included two new faces from Somerset - Kevin Shine, preparing to take over from Troy Cooley as fast-bowling coach, and Mark Garaway, the new analyst. Even Fletcher had to leave briefly during the one-day series, to accompany his wife Marina home when she fell ill.

That England nevertheless made most of the running in the First Test, held their own for three days in the Second and thoroughly outplayed India in the Third owed much to Flintoff 's inspiration. In the Ashes of 2005, he already seemed the complete cricketer, but he now displayed an extra dimension: that of the caring, considerate captain, tactically astute, at ease with responsibility, yet still fiercely passionate.

He relished the leadership and even abandoned plans to attend the birth of his second child, instead making a flying visit home between the Tests and one-dayers. Despite worries that he might be overworked, the captaincy enhanced rather than diminished his game. While his bowling was not overexposed and remained relentlessly hostile (his dismissal of Rahul Dravid turned the final day in Mumbai), his batting had improved beyond measure since he toured India in 2001-02.

It was hard to identify where England might have been better off with Vaughan; had he not appeared alongside Flintoff in a series of commercials on TV and billboards, England's official captain could have been forgotten altogether. By the last week of the tour, Flintoff was exhausted and, the oneday series lost, he handed over to Andrew Strauss, but this was the most arresting start by an England leader since Mike Brearley began by regaining the Ashes in 1977, the year Flintoff was born.

The team under Flintoff 's command was strikingly inexperienced. The eleven for the First Test contained three debutants (Alastair Cook, Ian Blackwell and Monty Panesar) and boasted just 211 previous Tests between them. The oldest player, Paul Collingwood, was not yet 30.

The last time England fielded three new boys was Fletcher's debut at Johannesburg in 1999-2000. That this side did not suffer the similar humiliation of an innings defeat indicated the cultural transformation in English cricket; specifically, that incoming players were much better prepared, much more thoroughly vetted for "character" and, because of greater competition, much more focused on doing well. Cook, Owais Shah and James Anderson all joined the tour as replacements but did not arrive "cold"; they had been on duty with England A in the Caribbean, thanks to astute scheduling from the ECB.

All three played crucial parts, as did Panesar, who won the last place on the tour after convincing the selectors that he had improved his all-round game through a spell of club cricket in Australia. Panesar, the first Sikh to play Test cricket for England, looked their most natural left-arm spinner in a generation. After Panesar claimed Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Kaif and Dravid as his first wickets, Flintoff declared that he was a joy to captain, always knowing the fields he wanted.

Cook and Shah, who made his debut at Mumbai, extended to five the recent sequence of specialist batsmen passing fifty in their first Test for England. Despite a long journey from the Caribbean and a bout of illness on arrival, Cook gave an extraordinary display of tenacity in Nagpur, scoring 60 and an unbeaten 104: he was the youngest player to score a Test century for England since 1939.

For all the promise of the new boys, the trip was also notable for the success of more familiar personnel. Returning to the side after 14 months, Anderson appeared to have regained his old zip and played a leading part in the win in Mumbai, claiming six wickets and a run-out. Unfortunately, during the one-day games he developed a back problem later diagnosed as a stress fracture. But the performance of the tour came from Collingwood, who might not have played a Test had everyone been fit. Fletcher had long been a fan; now, Collingwood won over many more admirers with his maturity and an accomplished maiden century in Nagpur. The statistics bore out his worth: top of the Test averages, second in the one-dayers, and the side's leading run-scorer in Pakistan and India combined. In fact, the Test batting owed too much to Collingwood at No. 5 and Flintoff at No. 6. Flintoff scored four fifties and his only other innings was 43. Those above them created too little sense of stability; immediately below, Geraint Jones, one excellent half-century aside, did little with the bat, though his keeping was generally good and in Mumbai excellent.

Until a vital century in the final Test, Strauss was below par, and throughout he had problems with Irfan Pathan swinging the new ball. Overall, Pathan was disappointing, but he accounted for Strauss five times in all matches. Pietersen, charged with the vital position of No. 4, scored two half-centuries in the Tests, three in the one-dayers, and frequently threatened to wreak havoc, but ultimately fell short of the century his responsibilities demanded. Ian Bell, press-ganged into opening at Mumbai, failed to consolidate on his excellent series in Pakistan.

The fate of the Test series was expected to hang on how England coped with India's spinners and how India dealt with their pace attack - and, essentially, so it proved. Generally, England would have been pleased with the way they played Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Although Kumble finished as the series' leading wicket-taker, he was required to bowl 200 overs, while Harbhajan was short of confidence until the final Test (he immediately followed up with a match-winning performance in the first oneday game in Delhi). Both might have done better had not India batted second in every Test, by choice in Mumbai. They still played their parts in India's emphatic victory in Mohali. Kumble, neutered in Nagpur by a slow pitch and England's reluctance to sweep, was predictably more of a handful on a surface with more bounce. More surprisingly, for a man passing 500 wickets in his 105th Test, he demonstrated a broader repertoire of tricks than England had seen before. His nine wickets were only part of his match-winning effort: like Harbhajan, he scored more than 30 late-order runs to help secure a vital lead of 38.

The unexpected development was the emergence of Munaf Patel, a fast bowler who was, in bursts, every bit as dangerous as anyone England possessed. He had the height, strength and speed to deploy the bouncer, and reverse-swung the ball enough to suggest that Simon Jones might indeed have been a threat had he been fit. He destroyed England with ten wickets in a warm-up, only their third first-class defeat in India outside a Test, and the seven he claimed on debut at Mohali included the first-innings scalps of Pietersen and Flintoff.

England's best bowler was Matthew Hoggard who, not for the first time, confounded predictions that he would be merely fodder for India's batting cannons. He showed some new tricks, too, swinging the old ball in Nagpur, where his figures of six for 57 were England's best in India since 1979-80, and keeping quiet the dangerous Virender Sehwag with the new. But England's victory in Mumbai was a collective effort of pressure-building, Hoggard, Anderson and Flintoff conceding 2.3 runs an over between them.

There, England's batting was equally disciplined. Criticism had been levelled at their lack of patience earlier in the winter, but the way they ground out 160 in 77 overs on the fourth day to take the lead beyond 300 suggested they had learned their lesson. It was an effort India simply could not match. Needing to bat around 100 overs to save the game and win the series, they did not last even half that. It was a frivolous performance that suggested India loved one-day cricket not wisely but too well.

India brought troubles on themselves. Though they bravely dropped the revered (in some quarters) former captain, Sourav Ganguly, they should have picked Patel for the First Test and played an extra batsman in the last. Dravid's decision to bowl in Mumbai smacked of complacency, though he might have got away with it but for India's serial sloppiness in the field.

Nevertheless, like their opponents, India, who in Greg Chappell had a coach every bit as independently minded as Fletcher, showed encouraging signs of regeneration. Patel was one youngster rich in promise. Another was Suresh Raina, a stylish left-handed batsman who demonstrated his class with the decisive innings in the Faridabad one-dayer.

The tour highlighted a new phenomenon - the emergence of high-class cricketers from families of modest means outside the major cities that had traditionally produced the sport's stars. Patel was a farmer's son from Gujarat, Raina hailed from once-unfashionable Uttar Pradesh (now the Ranji Trophy champions) and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the flamboyant wicketkeeperbatsman, came from Ranchi, in Bihar. "Dhoni represents the new mindset of small-town India - aggressive, uncomplicated, unabashedly consumerist and ready to take on the world," said the Times of India.

Dhoni's feats in one-day cricket had quickly turned him into a nationwide star and a very wealthy young man. Startlingly, he walked to the wicket to bigger cheers than were accorded the struggling hero, Tendulkar, who was booed by some during the Test in Mumbai, his home city. He was hampered by shoulder trouble, which put him out of the one-dayers, but England reinforced the impression gained during India's previous series against Pakistan that he was growing uneasy with the short-pitched ball.

Before the tour, the ongoing arguments over TV coverage in the UK took a new turn when they were subsumed by the even more complex politics of Indian broadcasting. Nimbus, the new owners of the rights to India's home games, took an aggressive view of their value. For some time, it looked as though the tour would not be seen in Britain at all, although eventually Sky Sports, who have shown nearly all England's matches abroad for the best part of two decades, paid what was considered an inflated price of $10m.

Match reports for

Tour Match: Cricket Club of India President's XI v England XI at Mumbai (BS), Feb 18-20, 2006
Report | Scorecard

Tour Match: Indian Board President's XI v England XI at Vadodara, Feb 23-25, 2006
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1st Test: India v England at Nagpur, Mar 1-5, 2006
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2nd Test: India v England at Mohali, Mar 9-13, 2006
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3rd Test: India v England at Mumbai, Mar 18-22, 2006
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Tour Match: Rajasthan Cricket Association President's XI v England XI at Jaipur, Mar 25, 2006
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1st ODI: India v England at Delhi, Mar 28, 2006
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2nd ODI: India v England at Faridabad, Mar 31, 2006
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3rd ODI: India v England at Margao, Apr 3, 2006
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4th ODI: India v England at Kochi, Apr 6, 2006
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5th ODI: India v England at Guwahati, Apr 9, 2006
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6th ODI: India v England at Jamshedpur, Apr 12, 2006
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7th ODI: India v England at Indore, Apr 15, 2006
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© John Wisden & Co.