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England's first-Test blues show the dangers of declarations against India

It's not unusual for England to dominate the first Test of an India tour, but sealing the deal is tough

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
England's fourth-day progress hit something of a lull in the final session in Chennai  •  BCCI

England's fourth-day progress hit something of a lull in the final session in Chennai  •  BCCI

Despite cementing their dominance of the first Test against India in Chennai, England's fourth-day progress hit something of a lull in the final session when they found themselves caught between positivity and recklessness in setting a defendable total, and ended up reverting to a degree of negativity.
After galloping along at more than four an over in the opening exchanges of their innings, the dismissal of Ollie Pope after tea brought about a change of tack, as they eked out 48 runs from the final 18 overs of their innings - an approach that ignited the passions of both the commentators at Chepauk, and the watching fans on social media.
Nevertheless, given England's record on their recent Test tours of India - as well as India's reputation for bravado, both in the first innings of this match, and on their victorious tour of Australia last month - there were more than a few reasons why the slow road to the ascendancy might yet prove to have been the wise one, especially in the opening match of the series.
This match was made memorable for Alastair Cook's serene debut. As a 21-year-old, he made 60 and 104 not out at the top of England's order, having flown halfway around the world from the Caribbean to fill two massive voids in their ranks: the captain, Michael Vaughan, had suffered a relapse of a chronic knee injury, while his deputy Marcus Trescothick - in a less enlightened era for mental-health awareness - had been spirited home with what was euphemistically described as a "mystery virus", leaving the team in the untested hands of their 2005 Ashes hero, Andrew Flintoff.
And it was against this backdrop that India, with their backs to the wall for much of the game - not least thanks to Matthew Hoggard's heroic first-innings haul of 6 for 57 - decided to put down the hammer on the final afternoon of the Test, and give England's rookie line-up a reminder of who's the boss in such conditions.
The equation looked safe enough from a distance - 368 to win on the final day following an overnight declaration, and this, remember, before the T20 revolution had transformed techniques and expectations. And when Hoggard scalped Virender Sehwag for a duck, the game seemed dead-set for a snore-draw, as Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid dropped anchor in a 167-run stand that spanned the rest of the first two sessions.
That, however, would be the prelude to an attempted heist. When Jaffer fell for a diligent 100, Irfan Pathan was shunted up the order to No.4 with a remit to mix things up. He did just that with 35 from 25, with MS Dhoni also appearing ahead of Sachin Tendulkar, who nevertheless joined the fun with 28 not out from 19. England's attack, featuring two debutant spinners in Monty Panesar and the one-cap wonder Ian Blackwell, just about held their nerve - and their catches - but the warning had been stark nonetheless when Tendulkar accepted an offer for bad light with 108 runs still needed from 70 balls.
Two years later, with Kevin Pietersen now at the helm, England found themselves in a remarkably similar situation in the opening Test of their campaign. This time it was Cook's opening partner, Andrew Strauss, who set the match agenda, reeling off twin centuries - 123 in the first and 108 in the second - to build on another committed bowling effort and set up a declaration that seemed, at the time, to be the perfect balance of dangled carrot and dangled rope.
The equation was 387 in four sessions - not dissimilar to the sort of figure that England might have ended up setting India in this current contest, had Joe Root waved them in during Jos Buttler's and Dom Bess' go-slow. That target, however, hadn't factored in the post-modern thwacking of Sehwag, whose frenzied opening gambit ripped the game wide open in the space of 23 overs.
From the outset, Sehwag climbed into the new-ball offerings of Steve Harmison and James Anderson, crashing eight fours and two sixes in reaching a 32-ball fifty almost before his partner Gautam Gambhir had emerged from single figures. He continued on his merry way when the spinners entered the fray, and though Graeme Swann eventually scalped him for 83 from 68 balls, the daunting target had been reduced to rubble by the close.
Enter Tendulkar, whose serene final-day century had the match sewn up by tea, and finally sealed - to huge acclaim from the Chepauk crowd - with an hour to spare. The achievement was especially poignant in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks, which had almost led to the tour being cancelled, and England were unable to regain their bearings in the two-match series, which finished with an uneventful draw in Mohali.
The one that got away as far as England are concerned, although as a central figure in both of the contests above, Cook - now captain - clearly had his reasons for reticence when England once again claimed the early ascendancy on a tour of India.
"Bat once, bat big" had been the message to England's current crop in India, and four years ago in Rajkot, they seemed to have given themselves the chance to do just that after racking up 537 over the course of the first five sessions, with centuries for Joe Root (124), Moeen Ali (117) and Ben Stokes (128).
India, however, ground their way close to parity with 488, thanks to a hefty second-wicket stand of 209 between Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, which left Cook himself in a bit of a bind as he reasserted England's dominance with a second-innings 130. What sort of target dare he leave India on the final afternoon, given what he knew they could be capable of?
In the end, he left them an equation of 310 in 49 overs, and was made to regret his caution by the close, as India collapsed to 172 for 6 with only Virat Kohli's 49 not out preventing further damage. It was the only sniff that England would get all series, as India responded to the scare with four crushing victories in a row.


Reflecting on that contest during the lunch-break during the ongoing Chennai Test, Cook - now a Channel 4 pundit - admitted that the fear of what-might-have-been had held him back from being more proactive.
"You think about if it goes wrong [and] what will happen," Cook said. "Maybe that's the wrong way to think about it. Maybe you should have just been thinking 'this is the positive way' and maybe that's my mindset. I went with 400 [sic] then and I've thought 'have I just gone too many?'
"There are so many things, so many permutations. And you've got to be so reactive. The most important thing is that England want to remain in control. If they suddenly lose two or three quick wickets, then they lose that control and India come back into the game."
Still, whatever happens for England, at least they have proven they can bat time in Indian conditions, which was perhaps the key lesson they took away from their one unmitigated failure in a recent first-Test in India. In 2012-13, they were routed by nine wickets in Ahmedabad, after failing to recover from their first-innings collapse of 191 all out. But Cook set the agenda second-time around with a batting 176, and England responded to his lead by turning the tables for a 2-1 Test series win.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket