Cricket: Beyond the Boundary: No sooner had India found a bowler than they lost a batsman

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The Texaco Trophy series which ended on Monday afternoon was unusually gripping. With England des- perate to recover their self-respect, it had an importance that eludes the average biff-bang contest. And, as it turned out, there was not much biff and even less bang.

All three matches were interrupted by rain and all the pitches favoured the seamers. England used two pinch-hitters, and one of them, Alistair Brown, made a hundred. This was magnificent - England's first one-day century in 16 matches - but it wasn't pinch-hitting. Brown's 118 occupied 137 balls; if he ever stayed in that long for Surrey, he would make 300. England's score after 15 overs on Monday was an old-fashioned 48 for 2. As if it was not bad enough to be called a clown by the Times, poor Brown had the embarrassment of being praised for his maturity by Mike Atherton. Maturity? That's what Test matches are for.

On Saturday, England's tally at the end of the pinch-hit period was even worse - 23 for 3 off 12 overs. This was the defining passage of the series. Being 23 for 3 is a long-standing English tradition. The normal procedure is for Atherton and/or Graham Thorpe to haul them out of the mire, leaving the last six batsmen to drag them back into it. This time, Thorpe battled through to the end, Matthew Maynard chipped in, Alec Stewart played like the senior pro he is, rather than the beginner he resembled on Thursday, and 23 for 3 became 162 for 4.

England might not have done it without a helping hand from the Indians. It's one thing to drop a catch, quite another not to go for one. In the 10th over, bowled by Venkatesh Prasad, India did both: Atherton was put down by Mohammed Azharuddin at second slip, and Thorpe offered an edge to the keeper, Nayan Mongia, which turned him to stone.

England had other slices of luck. The dank weather could have been designed to smother the Indian spinners and to make England's seam attack seem attacking. Sachin Tendulkar totalled just 37 in his three innings, and only once, on Sunday, was he defeated by a bowler, with Dominic Cork delivering the perfect outswinger. On Saturday he was shot down by friendly fire (run out by Vikram Rathore); on Thursday by an unfriendly umpire - Ray Julian, who mistook Peter Martin's nip-backer for a boomerang.

You don't make your own luck, but you can either make use of it or not. Thorpe put that narrow escape, and others, out of his mind and slowly took command. The conditions may have assisted England, but they read them well, bowling six overs of spin to India's 39.

The team was not quite unrecognisable from the World Cup. Atherton continued to struggle with the bat: in his last 13 one-day internationals he has averaged 12. Cork remained a fish half out of water, like Wigan at Twickenham - a fine competitor playing the wrong version of the game. Thorpe remained a quiet mainstay: he never failed, always looked for singles, took two wickets with his dinky seamers, and should have pipped the resurgent Chris Lewis to the England man of the series award.

The role of the team with plenty of talent but little spirit or self- belief was taken by India. But not everything was bleak for them. On Thursday they had two bowlers whom England wanted to see off (Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble), and several who could be milked. By Saturday the two had become three. Prasad started moderately but got better. Tall, whippy and adept at the leg-cutter, he looks the finished article. Yet he has never played a Test. He could be India's Cork.

No sooner had India found a bowler than they lost a batsman. With Navjot Singh Sidhu adamant that he will not rejoin the tour, it seems that his last act in international cricket will have been appropriate: he walked rather than wait for the third umpire's decision.

England may be sorry to see him go. David Lloyd's research revealed that England had Sidhu caught at short leg three times in 1990. So the short leg went in on Thursday, Sidhu braced himself for a going-over, and Lewis called his bluff with a full-length ball which bowled him. Having already earned his keep by putting a smile back on England's face, Lloyd was showing a fine grasp of detail. He could be England's Bob Woolmer.

Afterwards, Atherton played down the Lloyd effect, pointing out that England usually do well in home one-dayers. This was quite true, but not quite convincing. England were a different team, far more purposeful and positive. And Atherton was a different captain. For the first time, he was better in the field than at the crease. Asked a year ago if he would rather be remembered as a great captain or batsman, Atherton said "a great batsman".

His usual steel was accompanied by ingenuity. The one time the Indian batsmen were on top, he produced Thorpe, like a banana skin. He not only posted that short leg, but did the job himself. After Tendulkar got off to a flyer in the first game by whipping Cork off his legs, Atherton greeted him with a deep square leg in the second, and restricted him to six runs in 19 balls. Last year, by contrast, when Brian Lara was late-cutting England to shreds, Atherton rejected a suggestion from John Edrich that he should post a wide third man, on the grounds that it was too defensive.

A great opportunity awaits him now. After India, England face Pakistan, who are stronger but in similar disarray, Zimbabwe, the weakest Test team, and New Zealand, the second weakest. Even Ray Illingworth, whose remarks about Atherton tend to be edged with egotism, says that he is "becoming a good captain". He has vast experience: this time next year, bad back permitting, he will equal Peter May's record of 41 Tests as captain. He could be England's Allan Border.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly