Cricket: England rattled by Rau

Women's Test: Captain rescues home hopes after team-mates are befuddled by flighted finger spin
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The Independent Online
England 329 & 87-7 India 201

IT IS 20 years since England won a home Test which, frankly, is not nearly good enough. Of course, it would be more shameful had they played more than 15 matches in those two decades but it is so customary to find any stick with which to give an England team a decent flogging that the time gap will have to suffice.

For most of the first two days in this glorious setting and for the early part of the third the sad statistic, which has not received the attention it should have done, looked likely to be changed. But Test matches, as others have discovered, are won over every gruelling session and England's failure in the afternoon to build on their advantage may be expensive.

From dreams of winning they were soon having nightmares about losing. From ideas of setting a target of around 320 they were reduced to hanging on to something that would detain India beyond tea today. Wickets are not supposed to fall like this in women's cricket. It was spin that did for England as it has done for other England teams, loping, delicately flighted finger spin at that, beautifully delivered by Purnima Rau. She gave it air but she knew how to rush it through as well. It was quite disconcerting.

At 50 for 6 England were in disarray but their captain, Karen Smithies, restored some order with panache, aided by a vigilant Melissa Reynard. With an over left of the day, Reynard edged a catch behind. England are 215 ahead and have three wickets left. It should be intriguing today.

All this at least conspired to deal a blow to what has been the big trouble with women's Test cricket and what used to be the big trouble with men's Test cricket: too many draws. It is usually pleasant enough, is often elegant, is certainly competitive but it is not what you might fairly call entertaining. Of the 71 Tests England have played 48, or 67 per cent, have ended in stalemate, usually fairly arid stalemate.

Draws are an integral part of Test cricket, they can occasionally be riveting but only a third of Tests involving the male team have ended similarly (mind you, in their case, you might wish it was more). When there is a two-thirds chance a match will not have an outright winner it is not difficult to discern the limited appeal of the game in question.

It has something to do with the lack of penetrative bowlers allied to the sound defensive techniques of the superior batsmen. But it is probably also linked to being unaccustomed to the rhythm of the game, the difficulty of balancing the need to accumulate runs and being assertive with the need to occupy the crease. This has tended to result in sides just batting and batting. To demonstrate the contradiction in that, naturally, England's repeated loss of second-innings wickets in the afternoon yesterday displeased the assembled old-timers who immediately put it down to loose batting caused by too much one-day cricket. See, there are more similarities than you might think.

There were fascinating periods of play yesterday before a small but enthusiastic gathering that would not have disgraced a County Championship match. Indeed, there was the timeless air of festival championship cricket about the ground if not always the play.

India began the day 206 runs behind with five first-innings wickets left. England's first innings of 329 had been founded on a century of commendable adhesiveness if not outstanding fluency from Charlotte Edwards. India were then brought to book on the second evening by the seamer Clare Taylor, who had taken three wickets.

She made it four yesterday morning when she won an lbw decision with her first ball. Taylor was always accurate but has been given an extra dimension by the coaching of the former England fast bowler, Graham Dilley. He spotted that her left arm was somewhat redundant, suggested she be more positive with it at delivery and the result is an increase in bounce and movement. There were to be no more wickets for Taylor yesterday, but India still had trouble avoiding the follow-on. They were two short in the over before lunch when the last pair came together. Not that it would have been imposed; England wanted to give their bowlers a rest.

England's plan for victory swiftly went awry. Four of the first six wickets to fall were to lbw decisions and if the bowling was beguiling some of the shots looked injudicious. All at sea was another description. Clare Connor played crookedly at one which beat her, Edwards swept, Kathryn Leng was uncertain of her decision but only after displaying a similar quality in her stroke.

Only when Rau was taken off did the partial recovery begin. Smithies was impressive and authoritative but 20 years could still get longer.