Series review

India v England 2008-09

David Hopps

Test matches: (2) India 1, England 0 One-day internationals: (5) India 5, England 0. Cancelled 2

Players from both teams observe two minutes of silence before taking the field, India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 1st day, December 11, 2008
The tour was one of the most politically significant in cricket history © AFP

England's 2008 tour of India was one of the most politically significant in cricket history. From the moment that the vibrant Indian city of Mumbai fell prey to Islamist extremism, and a shaken touring party flew home without playing the last two one-day matches because of safety fears, arguments resounded about whether they should return to fulfil the two Tests before Christmas. That they did go back was a decision that did them great credit. The prime minister, Gordon Brown, called them "brave and courageous".

From the time that the first TV pictures of the Mumbai atrocities were seen, and England's cricketers - then staying in Bhubaneshwar - looked in disbelief at rolling news footage of fires, gunfights, explosions and bloodied bodies being pulled from the Taj Mahal Hotel, where they had stayed only a fortnight earlier, the two scheduled Tests took on a magnitude far beyond a sporting contest. After much agonising, England did fly back to play - and their choice was widely praised for the defiant message that normal life must proceed however wicked the terrorism.

The stock of Kevin Pietersen, an undaunted and self-confident captain, had never been higher; his influence never more apparent. But Pietersen's ambitions went beyond the bounds of ordinary mortals. Even before the Tests concluded, he was pressing the ECB to sack the coach, Peter Moores, who he felt was not up to the job. A "him or me" ultimatum became public knowledge (through no fault of his own); Moores was sacked shortly after the tour, but Pietersen, whose ego was perceived to be out of control, was forced to relinquish the captaincy.

It was a maddening outcome because, when they returned home for the second time on Christmas Eve, England's players, and primarily Pietersen, should have drawn grim satisfaction from a series fulfilled in such pressing circumstances.

The First Test in Chennai was a classic in which England, despite defeat, could take pride. This time there really was inestimable value in turning up, in taking part. But when India, against all expectations, stole the game from England's grasp by successfully chasing 387, Pietersen's captaincy looked exposed. His dissatisfaction with Moores's input deepened.

Yuvraj Singh gives Sachin Tendulkar a celebratory lift, India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 5th day, December 15, 2008
The moment of triumph: Sachin Tendulkar's match-winning century steered India to an emotional win in Chennai © Getty Images

For others, India's victory smacked of karma - the Hindu philosophy of cause and effect - as a foot-perfect, match-winning, unbeaten hundred was scored by Sachin Tendulkar, Mumbai's most celebrated figure. It was a draining innings, but one of complete authority, expressed not by flamboyant flourishes so much as concentration, repetition and accuracy; more than that, it was a suitable reminder that Mumbai was, despite the foreigners caught up in it, essentially an Indian tragedy.

The most resonant image throughout the Chennai Test had been that of Tendulkar, looking drawn and suppressing his emotions as he perched on an armchair for a TV advert that felt more like an address to the nation. He ended it by vowing: "I play for India. Now more than ever." And play he most certainly did. It was the first time he had scored a match-winning century in the fourth innings of a Test. He called afterwards for perspective, acknowledging that he could not assuage the hurt of those who had lost loved ones, but the symbolism was powerful.

When England left Bhubaneshwar on November 28 several prominent players, most notably Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison, were in no mood to return. The decision to fly home to friends and family seemed designed to deepen that reluctance. But the ECB's security analysis was swift, India's response to their colossal demands was immediate, and cricket's common purpose had never been more impressive. The insistence from the outset, initially from Hugh Morris, the managing director of England cricket, and repeated by the national selector, Geoff Miller, that no player would be forced to return against his will, was important. That Morris was present in Bhubaneshwar, for the fifth one-day international at Cuttack, and able to set a consistent, adult tone, was fortunate for the ECB. His stock, too, rose markedly.

Pietersen, at that stage, cut an impressive figure. Initially, his emotional talk of England players using up mobile phone batteries to field worried calls from children asking "Are you all right, Daddy?" was self-indulgent when England's players were 850 miles away from the horrors of Mumbai. But he struck a shrewd balance between stating his players' right to make an independent decision and promoting the sort of collective team spirit that persuaded waverers such as Flintoff and Harmison to catch the flight to a holding camp in Abu Dhabi on December 4.

"It's fantastic the guys want to go and rub shoulders together with India at a time of need," said Pietersen. "They are men at the end of the day and they make decisions for themselves." The theme of boys having to become men was never far from the surface. Players of cricket - perhaps more than any other sport because of its prolonged nature - regard it as an alternative existence. The Taj Hotel, too, with its old colonial splendour, had long been viewed by England touring sides as a refuge from the clamour outside its doors. Now real life intruded and had to be addressed.

Not just the Second Test in Mumbai, but the First Test in Ahmedabad, one of India's more volatile cities, was switched, while the three-day warmup in Vadodara was cancelled. The new venues of Chennai and Mohali were chosen because the ECB had confidence that the Indian board could deliver its promises in those regions. N. Srinivasan, the BCCI secretary, was also president of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association; I. S. Bindra, one of the most influential figures in the board's history, was the Punjab president. The commitment with which the authorities delivered the ECB's security demands, which cool analysis might have judged excessive, encapsulated cricket's importance in India's social fabric.

"It's fantastic the guys want to go and rub shoulders together with India at a time of need," said Pietersen. "They are men at the end of the day and they make decisions for themselves." The theme of boys having to become men was never far from the surface.

It required a lot of agonising before what passed for normal sporting life could resume, and the Test tour was anything but normal. There were 3,000 police around the Chepauk Stadium in Chennai, including 300 of the commandos who had been prominent in the Mumbai hotel sieges; protection levels were similar in Punjab, where "lots of frisking" was promised and lots of frisking was delivered. It required emergency security assessments by Reg Dickason, the ECB's chief security officer, a man highly respected by the players who - however much he tried to maintain a low profile - was in danger of becoming a celebrity. And it required, perhaps most strikingly, a spirit of co-operation between the ECB, in the person of Hugh Morris, and his namesake Sean Morris, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association. Both acted maturely at a time of crisis.

In the ten days that elapsed between England leaving Bhubaneshwar on November 28 and flying back into Chennai on December 8, opinions abounded. The prevailing view was that England's cricketers must remain unbowed in the face of terrorism, which was now a fact of life throughout many parts of the world, including the UK. Should everyone go home if there was a terrorist incident during the London Olympics? Andrew Strauss, enhancing his reputation as the thinking man's alternative to Pietersen as England captain, was the first player to speak openly in favour of the tour resuming, talking of "a duty to the game".

Kevin Pietersen runs out of options as India inch closer to the target, India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 5th day, December 15, 2008
The outcome of the tour had consequences for Kevin Pietersen's captaincy © Getty Images

But there were some powerful voices in opposition. Lord MacLaurin, a former ECB chairman, warned: "If these fanatics are going to target people then the England cricket side could be a very big target for them." The most strident criticism came from the former England batsman turned pundit Geoffrey Boycott, who was adamant as ever in his ghosted column in the Daily Telegraph. Boycott termed the intention to return "disrespectful, insensitive and immoral", asking "what about the grieving families who have lost loved ones?" The players would be put in "an awful, invidious, pressurised position". The ECB were showing "a lack of moral judgment" and could not just be "macho and gung-ho". His attack clearly irked the ICC president, David Morgan. "It isn't for British people to make a judgment on what people in India want," he said. "It is quite clear that the people who run cricket in India want the game to resume as soon as possible. We have to think of the business of cricket as well as the game of cricket."

England's return was to some extent a business decision. It would also be naive to assume that it never crossed the ECB's mind how much their relationship with the Indian board would be improved by standing firm. But the safety of the players remained paramount, and the sense of an obligation to the game was widespread. Any cynicism was misplaced.

The First Test rewarded the determination to proceed. England had just been beaten 5-0 in the one-day series, while India had sent Australia packing in a recent home Test series. England's preparations for Chennai had been scant - it even rained at the holding camp in Abu Dhabi - but they shared in a compelling contest.

England led by 75 on first innings and, when they declared their second innings soon after tea on the fourth day at 311 for nine, a lead of 386, their position seemed impregnable. Strauss's unwavering solidity had brought him two hundreds in the match, Paul Collingwood grafted another in the second innings and, if England had lost impetus as they headed towards the declaration, it seemed a tactical debate for the old pros rather than a significant misjudgment. But England were mugged by Virender Sehwag on the fourth evening and sentenced by Tendulkar the following day.

Pietersen spoke of a "bitter pill to swallow". His relationship with Moores had always possessed tensions and, on the last day in Chennai, he looked an inexperienced captain bereft of strategies. On a final-day surface full of craters, he was also short of a confident, grooved spin bowler. Monty Panesar's botched pre-tour preparations had featured a cancelled trip to Sri Lanka, and the belated appointment of a spin-bowling coach, Mushtaq Ahmed, which was delayed because the ICC demanded monitoring procedures for Mushtaq: he had been named as a prominent figure in the Qayyum report published in 2000. The best England spin bowler since Derek Underwood was a downcast figure. Moores's regular insistence that "Monty is eager to learn" was by now inviting the rejoinder: "Why doesn't someone teach him then?"

The Second Test in Mohali lacked lustre. Midwinter in the Punjab is not the time for Test cricket except in emergency; if the days could have been colder, fog clung to every morning, draining the game of time and colour. India scored 453 with hundreds from Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid - Dravid resurrecting his Test career at the last with an unremitting innings that satisfied the connoisseurs and conferred gentle sleep on the rest.

Pietersen, who had played both Tests with a cracked rib, damaged playing squash the day before the Cuttack one-day international, responded with a century. Another reason, he must have thought, for England to recognise his worth and bow to his wishes. But his flamboyant 144 was followed by England losing their last six wickets for 22 and trailing on first innings by 151, a collapse which confirmed the series belonged to India.

That the talk was once more of England batting collapses at least illustrated that cricket was returning to normality. On a pointless final day, the security was largely forgotten and the tourists' thoughts turned to home. Pietersen said something about the lads deserving a break but, after a tour in which England failed to win a competitive match, he was in no mood to rest easily and embarked upon the stand-off that was to have, for him, a disastrous outcome.

Match reports for

Mumbai v England XI at Mumbai (BS), Nov 9, 2008
Report | Scorecard

Tour Match: Mumbai Cricket Association XI v England XI at Mumbai (BS), Nov 11, 2008
Report | Scorecard

1st ODI: India v England at Rajkot, Nov 14, 2008
Report | Scorecard

2nd ODI: India v England at Indore, Nov 17, 2008
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3rd ODI: India v England at Kanpur, Nov 20, 2008
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4th ODI: India v England at Bengaluru, Nov 23, 2008
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5th ODI: India v England at Cuttack, Nov 26, 2008
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6th ODI: India v England at Guwahati, Nov 29, 2008
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7th ODI: India v England at Delhi, Dec 2, 2008
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Tour Match: Indian Board President's XI v England XI at Vadodara, Dec 5-7, 2008
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1st Test: India v England at Chennai, Dec 11-15, 2008
Report | Scorecard

2nd Test: India v England at Mohali, Dec 19-23, 2008
Report | Scorecard

© John Wisden & Co.