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England vs India in 2021

A review of England vs India in 2021

Jonathan Liew
Chris Woakes leaves Old Trafford after the fifth Test was cancelled  •  Getty Images

Chris Woakes leaves Old Trafford after the fifth Test was cancelled  •  Getty Images

Test matches (4): England 1 (14pts), India 2 (26pts)
It was a series that crept up on you. Wedged into an overcrowded summer, forced to compete with the multimedia blizzard of The Hundred, and foisted on a public already engorged on sport, it seemed to arrive with a minimum of fanfare, advance billing or phoney war.
India landed two months earlier, and played so little cricket it was easy to forget they were still in the country. England, disjointed and distracted, were slaloming through an assault course of Covid outbreaks, format switches, eclectic selection and their own screaming tiredness.
Ticket sales were strong, as one might have expected after the shutouts of 2020. But as the teams headed for the First Test in Nottingham, there was little sense of event, little idea of the epic, operatic, exhausting, baffling tussle about to be laid before us.
Actually, that's not quite true: India had an inkling. What quickly became clear was that those long weeks of confinement, the endless nasal swabs, the days and nights spent staring at hotel ceilings, had hardened something within. For most of the 41 days between their defeat by New Zealand in the World Test Championship final at the Rose Bowl and the start of play at Trent Bridge, they had been plotting, smouldering, straining at the leash, thirsting for the battle. Never was that more evident than in their electric final-day win in the Second Test at Lord's: a snarling, ill-tempered triumph in front of a partisan diasporic crowd.
That sense of purpose, which fed into some of the most intense cricket ever played by an Indian team on these shores, was perhaps the single biggest difference between the sides. And yet the hasty cancellation of the Fifth Test at Manchester after a Covid outbreak in the tourists' camp left the series in a contested space, with India 2-1 up and on the brink of their first victory in England since 2007 - an outcome that would advance their claim as one of the finest teams of the 21st century.
The game was later scheduled for Edgbaston in July 2022. But even if England win, only the most one-eyed supporter would claim the spoils had genuinely been shared. Over these four Tests, when the contest burned white-hot and the pressure was at its fiercest, India proved their greatness, despite the administrative asterisk.
As in Australia several months earlier, they succeeded not through individual acts of brilliance but a collective resolve borne of solitude and adversity. Unlike their previous tour of England in 2018, a 4-1 defeat gilded by the supreme form of Virat Kohli, the glory was shared between at least half a dozen. Indeed, India had clearly learned the lessons from that visit, building in serious preparation time that gave many of their all-format players - the likes of Rohit Sharma, K. L. Rahul, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah - the chance to hone their red-ball skills.
The upshot was a top order capable of batting time (never had Sharma faced nearly as many balls as the 866 in this series) and a bowling unit that hunted in a rapacious, disciplined pack. Kohli endured a relatively modest time with the bat, yet his team's controlled, brazen aggression - from the relentless pace battery via the sparkling fielding to the ceaseless sledging - had his fingerprints all over it.
England, who lost Ben Stokes shortly before the series began, as he took an indefinite break to look after his mental well-being and nurse his injured finger, had moments of promise. Their sole victory, a romp at Headingley, offered a glimpse of their potential. Their defiance in the second innings at Trent Bridge and the first at The Oval offered a glimpse of their resilience. They had the highest wicket-taker in Ollie Robinson, and the highest run-scorer in the formidable Joe Root; at times, Jimmy Anderson, 39 now, was unplayable. They put together competent passages of play, and rarely let their heads drop. And yet, over the series, they did little to counter the long-standing charge that they remained a bits-and-pieces side with a wildly inconsistent streak, a worrying reliance on a small coterie of champion players, and a board that seemed hell-bent on flinging obstacles in their path.
On the basis of numbers and scorecards alone, an observer might conclude this was a close encounter between evenly matched sides. But this would be to confuse a James Bond car chase with a drunk driver: both are weaving alarmingly across the road, upsetting fruit stalls, sending pedestrians ducking for cover, but only one really knows what they're doing.
While England's all-format players grappled with the novelty and razzmatazz of The Hundred, most of their Test specialists whiled away precious weeks in the nets, with virtually no first-class cricket to occupy them. This absurdity was underscored when Moeen Ali dashed from Birmingham Phoenix to Lord's for his first home Test in two years, with only a couple of days to reacquaint himself with a red ball. As it turned out, this series would be his Test swansong, and a fittingly emblematic end it was too: a bittersweet reminder of how one of England's most talented all-round cricketers had been mismanaged, messed around and generally set up to fail.
Home advantage is the most powerful weapon in Test cricket, but England contrived to hand it to their opponents. Indeed it was arresting how neatly the roles from 2018 were reversed. Here, it was England who looked sketchy and sleepy, who arrived underprepared with no real idea of their best XI and no real coherent playing strategy, and who lost pretty much all the big moments.
In mitigation, the unavailability of their four fastest bowlers - Stokes, Jofra Archer, Olly Stone and (for three of the four Tests) Mark Wood - deprived them of cutting edge, and forced them to rely on a conveyor belt of 82mph seam. The nous and experience of Stuart Broad, who tore a calf in the build-up to the Second Test and played no further part, were missed.
But India also had to contend with injuries, most notably to Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill and Washington Sundar. Unlike England, they had the depth to cope. After Gill flew home with a shin problem, and Agarwal was sidelined with concussion, Rahul effortlessly stepped into the breach, hitting 84 at Trent Bridge and a brilliant 129 at Lord's. When Shami was ruled out of the Fourth Test, Umesh Yadav took his place and mopped up six wickets. Such was India's wealth of reserve talent that Ravichandran Ashwin, perhaps the world's best spinner, did not play at all, amid whispers of a dysfunctional relationship with Kohli. A composite XI of those India managed without - others included Prithvi Shaw, Hanuma Vihari, Suryakumar Yadav, Wriddhiman Saha and Akshar Patel - would probably have given England a run for their money.
Perhaps most crucially, they recognised when to raise their game. In their two wins, both in London, Rohit Sharma set things up with masterful batting in alien conditions, belying his unimpressive overseas Test record to make 83 out of an opening stand of 126 in the first innings at Lord's, then hauling India back into the game at The Oval with 127 in almost six hours. And in both Tests, Bumrah - who had already taken nine wickets at Trent Bridge - burst through on the last afternoon, removing Root in the first over after tea on the fifth day at Lord's, then all but settling matters at The Oval by bowling Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow. He was rarely less than a thrilling sight. He even scored a few runs - despite starting the series with a batting average of 2.26 - most importantly on the final morning at Lord's, where Root lost the plot.
If India were powered by a cast of several, it felt as if England were powered by a cast of one. Earlier in Root's captaincy, the burdens of leadership and batsmanship seemed to pull him in opposite directions - one demanding selflessness, the other selfishness. But he began to recognise his limitations as a captain, and to realise that the best way to help his side was by scoring runs in industrial quantities. Here, he surpassed even his loftiest ambitions.
Continuing his stunning form from earlier in the year in Sri Lanka and India, Root made three times as many runs as any of his team-mates, top-scored in the first five innings out of seven, and hit all three of England's centuries. This was a testament to his talent and rediscovered powers of concentration, but also an indictment of those around him.
And so England were forced to continue their batting auditions. Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley failed to see out the series; their replacements, Haseeb Hameed and Dawid Malan, offered flickers of improvement, with Hameed and Rory Burns threatening to resemble an opening partnership. Above all, though, you got the sense that, as soon as Root departed, England were likely to crumble.
Two days before the Fourth Test, at the St James' Court hotel in London, Indian coach Ravi Shastri held a launch for his new book, Stargazing: The Players in My Life. Many of the Indian squad were present, as well as the ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison. Masks were not worn. Four days later, Shastri tested positive for Covid, and went into isolation, along with three members of India's support staff (two tested positive). And two days before the Fifth Test at Old Trafford, assistant physiotherapist Yogesh Parmar - who had been in close contact with many of the players - was found to have the virus.
Nobody can say for sure where Shastri became infected. He was adamant his book launch was not to blame, arguing in a Guardian interview that he probably caught the bug in Leeds. But the effect on the tourists, who had been away from home for more than three months and were now facing the prospect of having their return delayed - or their participation in the IPL scuppered - was seismic. Shortly before the teams were due to take the field, it was announced that, despite a full set of negative Covid tests, India had chosen not to play.
For a few hours, chaos reigned. Administrators held high-level negotiations. Allegations of bad faith and self-interest abounded. Had the Test been forfeited, or just abandoned? Would it be rescheduled? And what were we all meant to do for the next five days?
You could understand England's chagrin: a chance to square the series had been snatched from them. There were rumours that India's bubble had not exactly been unburstable. But wherever the blame lay, England were hardly in a position to lecture anyone on biosecurity.
On October 12, a man called Daniel Jarvis appeared at Croydon magistrates' court to plead not guilty to a charge of aggravated trespass. During the Test series, Jarvis - a YouTube prankster going by the nickname of Jarvo69 - had infiltrated the security cordon and made his way on to the outfield, not once but three times. At Lord's, he appeared after lunch in Indian kit in an attempt to pass himself off as a fielder; at Headingley, he walked out in batting gear after the dismissal of Rohit Sharma; at The Oval, he ran on and barged into a startled Bairstow, before being grappled to the ground by security staff.
Even if the joke was wearing thin, it was a surreal note in what had been a surreal summer: a series beginning in a haze of haste and confusion ultimately receded in similar fashion. The result of England v India was to be decided almost a year after it started, maybe with radically different teams. It would, surely, be the longest and weirdest series of them all.