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Tour and tournament reports

India vs England in 2020-21

A review of India vs England in 2020-21

George Dobell
Virat Kohli, Washington Sundar, Axar Patel, Mohammad Siraj and Rishabh Pant with the trophy, India vs England, 4th Test, Ahmedabad, 3rd day, March 6, 2021

Virat Kohli, Washington Sundar, Axar Patel, Mohammad Siraj and Rishabh Pant with the trophy  •  BCCI

Test matches (4): India 3 (90pts), England 1 (30pts)
Twenty20 internationals (5): India 3, England 2
One-day internationals (3): India 2 (20pts), England 1 (10pts)
There was a moment, about two weeks into the tour, when all - well, nearly all - seemed rosy in the garden of English cricket. The team had just won their sixth away Test in a row - for the first time since before the First World War - and their sixth in succession in Asia, too. They even had an outside chance of reaching the World Test Championship final in June. Joe Root had equalled the record for most wins as an England captain, and taken his Test average back above 50 for the first time in more than two years.
But the mood changed quickly. Defeats in the next three games - and the scale of those defeats - forced a reappraisal, and reopened old wounds. By the time England left India, they had lost series in all three formats, and debates thought to have been consigned to the past were raging once more. They included questions about the sustainability of a schedule which required too much of the participants; doubts about the ability of the County Championship to prepare players for such challenges; and concerns over the apparent prioritising of T20 - especially the IPL - over Test cricket.
A core issue was the management's decision to rest and rotate players. The intention was no doubt good. It recognised the strain of living inside a bio-bubble, and the absence of family support. Had the policy not been in place, it is entirely possible some of the squad would have opted out altogether. All-format players involved in both the Sri Lankan and Indian tours were likely to be away from home for three months - five, if they had an IPL deal. That might once have been acceptable; not any more.
But, on a tour already lacking warm-up games, the execution of the policy was flawed. Jonny Bairstow, for example, was sent home after looking in good touch in Sri Lanka, and returned looking all at sea: he made three ducks in his four Test innings. Jos Buttler was available for only the First Test, but came back to India for the white-ball series.
But it was Moeen Ali who exemplified how England were hamstrung by their own strategy. Having contracted Covid-19, he had spent much of the Sri Lanka tour in his hotel room, but was recalled for the Second Test in India - his first first-class match for 17 months. He performed well, taking eight wickets and crashing 43 in 18 balls, even if England hurtled to defeat, and would have been an automatic pick for the next Test. Instead, he flew home as part of a prearranged rotation plan, returning only for the limited-overs games.
Explaining the move in a post-match media conference, Root said Ali had "chosen to go home". It was not a phrase used to describe the departure of any other player, nor Root's own absence on paternity leave a few months earlier, and gave the impression Ali had turned his back on the team. Root, to his credit, made a swift apology. But it transpired that Ed Smith, then the national selector, had made a late plea for Ali to stay on, putting him in an invidious position.
At the heart of it all was the understanding that no player would be asked to miss the IPL that followed the tour. With a T20 World Cup scheduled for India later in the year, this had some logic. But it went largely unspoken that, if the ECB forced the players into deciding between international cricket and the T20 leagues, the administrators might not like the answer. So England had to juggle their resources. Combined with illness and injury, it meant they were rarely, if ever, at full strength.
The management insisted they still prioritised Test cricket, yet only the T20 team could pick from a first-choice group of players. It felt at times as if the ECB had accepted this was a Test series they could never win. So long as the domestic schedule continues to place T20 in prime summer, and pushes the Championship into the margins, they may be right.
In winning one Test, England fared better than many expected. And while there was much to admire in that game - Root recorded his third score in excess of 180 in three Tests, Jofra Archer made vital new-ball incisions, and James Anderson dazzled with his skill - England also won a disproportionately important toss on a pitch that started ideal for batting and deteriorated sharply. That result pulled the tiger's tail. Responding to the defeat, the BCCI produced a series of pitches which sought to maximise their superiority, in both bowling and facing spin. Having made 578 in the first innings of the series, England never again passed 205; on four occasions, they failed to reach 150.
Their frailty against the turning ball was brutally exposed. While Jack Leach performed admirably, dismissing Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara four times each, and Root enjoyed one freakish spell on a surface offering copious assistance, Dom Bess's travails grew painful to watch. Having enjoyed some fortune in taking four for 76 in the first innings of the First Test (one wicket came from a full toss, another when a long hop deflected to midwicket via short leg's back), he declined to the point where full tosses became alarmingly regular. With Ali at home, it left England under-resourced. It was hard to avoid the suspicion that years of playing the Championship at either end of the home summer, when spin bowling is often of little relevance, had eroded their depth.
The batting was little better. In conditions few had experienced, they struggled to play not just the turning ball, but the one that skidded on. Highlights packages showed a succession of England batsmen missing straight deliveries. In truth, it was hard to imagine any era of English batting which would have flourished. And while players of a previous age might have prospered with a large stride and judicious use of the pad, DRS has removed such options. Against off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and slow left-armer Akshar Patel, who between them took 59 wickets at 12, batting was as hard as is imaginable.
It wasn't just England who struggled. Players as good as Virat Kohli, Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane averaged 28, 22 and 18 respectively. Only Rohit, who had the advantage of settling against the seamers, and Rishabh Pant, who confirmed his vast potential, regularly shone. Had India's batters been up against India's spinners, they might have fared no better.
There were tactical errors from England, though. They crammed their side with four seamers for the Third Test - a day/night encounter - in the expectation the pink ball would provide help. As it transpired, the quartet claimed one wicket between them, and England lost in two days, as Patel thrived on the confusion caused by his natural variation. With England preferring the seam of Stuart Broad (who finished the series without a wicket) to the all-round skills of Chris Woakes (who played none of the six winter Tests), they had a tail that would have impressed a diplodocus.
Given his plight, playing Bess in the final Test seemed recklessly optimistic. It meant that, having reduced India to 146 for six in their first innings, England could not sustain the pressure. The next two wickets added a match-defining 219.
Were the pitches good enough? Certainly they turned from, if not the first session, very soon afterwards. And certainly batting became fiendish as surfaces broke up, sometimes unusually early, and the bounce grew more irregular. Some made the point that there are few complaints when England benefit from the Dukes ball and seaming, swinging conditions at home. Others argued that, though the ball in England may move laterally, the bounce is predictable. That was not the case here.
Although desperate not to be seen to be whingeing, England also felt the net area in Ahmedabad was unfit for purpose, while the groundsman for the First Test was moved to other duties after their victory. At times, it really did feel as if winning had become a little bit too important. The official rating of the pitches for the Second and Third Tests was "average", which seemed generous. But long before the end, it had become apparent there was little inclination from the ICC to censure the BCCI on any issue.
Some of Kohli's interactions with the umpires (who, like the match referees, were Indian, as a result of Covid travel restrictions) pushed the limits of what was acceptable. Most of the on-field umpiring was impressive, though on one occasion, the officials called for a review of a Kohli dismissal after he had been clean bowled; on another, the TV umpire did not watch a delivery to its conclusion when declining an England review. Few seriously claimed bias, but this was a reminder that the presence of neutral umpires tends to quell such disputes before they can begin.
England had a good chance of winning the T20 series, having gone 2-1 up with two to play. But they barely experimented with their side - they did at least try Adil Rashid as an opening bowler - while India explored their bench options. Ishan Kishan was Player of the Match in the second game on his T20I debut, and Suryakumar Yadav in the fourth, after his first international innings; England used only 12 players, learned little and still lost.
While India's 2-1 win in the one-day series looked a close contest - the decider was settled by seven runs - the truth was less romantic. Reduced to 200 for seven chasing 330, England needed a remarkable innings from Sam Curran to take them anywhere close. Having not lost a bilateral ODI series since January 2017, also in India, England had lost two in a row.
A failure to find an adequate replacement for Liam Plunkett (dropped after the World Cup), or Jofra Archer (rested), was costly; the absence of Root (also rested) was felt deeply. They clung on to their No. 1 ranking in both formats, but the implications were clear: in Indian conditions, where the next T20 and 50-over World Cups were due to be played, the hosts were desperately tough to beat. An away Ashes remains the yardstick by which English cricket judges itself, but a Test series in India may have become the ultimate challenge.