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Analysis

England's victory in India - Pretty much the perfect performance

It doesn't seem unreasonable to hope a new generation watched and thought, 'I'd like to try that'

George Dobell
George Dobell
09-Feb-2021
It was, pretty much, the perfect performance. It wasn't just the result, or that England put into action all the plans they had devised ahead of the series. It was that they achieved this victory - a result which may well be remembered as among their best overseas for many years - on free-to-air television. They even polished the game off on the final day before home-schooling had to start.
You wonder what those seeing this great game of ours for the first time will have made it. Will they have deemed it too slow or too complicated? Will they have yearned for different coloured shirts or balls? Will they have thought 'if only it were rooted more in a decimal system' or have hated almost everything about it except the horn sound when a no-ball occurred? We may never know.
The experience feels like an opportunity. For while England has had numerous players who might have captured the public imagination over the last few years - the likes of Kevin Pietersen or Stuart Broad, for example - their exploits have, all too often, been hidden behind a paywall.
This time? Well, many of us fell in love with the game having been exposed to a few moments on television. It doesn't seem too unreasonable to hope that, somewhere in Luton or Liverpool, a new generation were marvelling at James Anderson's skill or Ben Stokes bravura and thinking, 'I'd like to try that'.
There are several inspirational figures in this team. There's Anderson, for example, with his extraordinary longevity and commitment to self-improvement. There's Jofra Archer, with his pace and skill. There's Stokes, with his extravagant talent and personality to match. And there's Joe Root, who has just provided the cream of Indian batting with a masterclass on how to bat in Asia and has shown you can be a ruthless captain without denigrating the game or the opposition.
All are, to greater or lesser extent, blessed with a bit of genius. All are obvious candidates for the sort of promotional material the ECB puts out to 'inspire generations'.
You wouldn't describe Jack Leach in quite the same terms. England have had more talented players. England have had more glamorous and exciting cricketers. He wouldn't claim to be a genius and the papers couldn't give a toss whose shirts he wears.
But if you were looking for a demonstration of resilience, if you were looking for an example of how to deal with adversity or how to cope with disappointment and setbacks, then Leach is your man.
For this is a man who was once obliged to get a job parking trolleys in a supermarket as the county contract he hoped for didn't materialise. A man who, on the brink of international cricket, was forced to remodel his action after he was judged to be throwing. A man whose first eight overs of this match cost an eye-watering 77 runs. A man who has had to manage Crohn's disease throughout his career - and through a pandemic, in particular - and who, little more than a year ago, lay in a hospital bed wondering if the sepsis he had contracted was going to kill him. For a few hours, it could have gone either way. If you're looking for an example of an ordinary man achieving extraordinary things, if you're looking for a role model, Leach is your man.
It was probably fitting that he and Anderson played such prominent roles on the final day. Like the team they represent, both had been dismissed by some ahead of the series. Anderson for his age; Leach for his perceived lack of quality. But they combined here to claim seven second-innings wickets and underline the folly of underestimating them.
Anderson's first over of the day, the over in which he bowled Shubman Gill and Ajinkya Rahane, will be talked of for years to come. Harnessing the reverse swing and worn pitch to perfection, he proved - yet again - that he requires neither a Dukes ball or a green surface to be dangerous. Neither batsmen had much reason to rebuke themselves.
The ball to Rishabh Pant, while less eye-catching, might have been even better. Knowing the batsman would come at him, Anderson delivered a cutter - a relatively new weapon in his armoury - which gripped a little in the surface and came through slower than Pant anticipated. As a result, he was through the shot early and his leading edge ballooned to short extra-cover. This was a master at work.
Anderson, aged 38, has now taken 11 wickets in his two most recent games in Asia at an average of 9.90 apiece. In terms of his remarkable ability to stay at the top of the game for a long time, he surely deserves to be bracketed alongside the likes of Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Tom Brady. No overseas player has won more Tests in India this century.
So, what of those who refuse to acknowledge his value? Well, some people still insist the world is flat and deny climate change. Sometimes you just have to let people go and hope they don't run with scissors.
It was Leach who made the breakthrough, though. Producing a beauty which drifted in, turned sharply and bounced, he dislodged Cheteshwar Pujara with a ball as perfect as the one which accounted for Rohit Sharma the previous day.
India came into the game with several players coming back from injury and having had little time to readjust after recently returning from Australia. Ravindra Jadeja was greatly missed, too.
But England's preparation time had hardly been ideal, either. And they were obliged to change their side at the last minute due to injury, too. They won the toss the last time they were in Chennai; it didn't stop them falling to an innings defeat.
Make no mistake: this is a dauntingly strong India side. They had lost just one of their previous 35 home Tests and they had won 12 of those - including the last four - by an innings. They had just beaten Australia in Australia and they are arguably still favourites for this series.
But England have now won six away Tests in a row - and six away Tests in Asia, too - and are unbeaten in 11 under Root (defeat against West Indies came when Stokes was captain). This was a result that brings Root level with Michael Vaughan as the captain with the most victories in England's Test history. His reputation - his team's reputation - will be defined by what happens in the rest of this long, tough year. But it's possible - just possible - that Root will be remembered as one of England's best captains.
Victory here was all the more impressive as it was achieved despite the unravelling of Dom Bess in the second innings. Indeed, as Virat Kohli swatted three successive full tosses to the boundary - some of them hideous, chest-high full tosses at that - memories of Scott Boswell and his yips at Lord's came to mind. It really was a tough watch. England have a tough decision to make over Bess in the next few days; from a distance, it looks as if he needs some time out of the firing line.
That apart, this was a game that provided an almost perfect template for England. It included big first innings runs; it included a batsman converting a good innings into a match-defining one; it included early inroads from the fast bowlers; contributions from the spinners; reverse swing and some outstanding catches. It was as proficient, professional and accomplished an away win as England could hope to achieve.
Everyone - including Bess - contributed at one time or another. Dom Sibley, something of an unsung hero, continues to build foundations, Archer continues to add a point of difference and Root, leading from the front, scored 156 more runs than anyone else in the match.
It was revealing to hear Root's tactics questioned so forcibly by such well-known cricketing figures on the fourth day. They didn't like the pace of England's batting and they didn't like his refusal to declare. Some of them still insist they were right despite England winning with half-a-day to spare.
But Root is doing things his way. And while his soft voice and easy-going personality might not fit the stereotype of what some feel captains are meant to look like, there is no doubt he has the fulsome support of his side and is coaxing out of them a succession of outstanding performances. It was encouraging, too, to hear him call on his team for improvement ahead of the second Test. No one is under any delusions about the magnitude of the challenge that still awaits.
But maybe it's Leach that most accurately embodies this side. And maybe, in parks and yards around England, kids will be trying to emulate his skills over the next few days. He really does have an inspirational story. You underestimate him, or this England side, at your peril.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo