India were returning from a disappointing tour of South Africa in which their batting had appeared shaky, their bowling either too young or too old and their captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, so lacking in credibility that he was apparently facing the sack. England, by contrast, had lost a series to Pakistan but had played with credit against a team who were first in the world. England began the series in Calcutta as favourites, were well thrashed and now have to face Australia here this summer. What went wrong? How do England pick up the pieces? Should Graham Gooch remain as captain?
The questions were put to two former England captains, a current county captain and former England player with experience of India, and a distinguished Indian cricketer who has had considerable experience in both countries.
Ray Illingworth, now a TV and radio commentator, played in 61 Tests and captained England in 31; he was a high-class off-spinner himself and is regarded, with Mike Brearley, as the shrewdest post-war captain. Mike Denness played in 28 Tests and captained England in 19 and has maintained grass-roots connections with county cricket in his representation of the Championship sponsors, Britannic Assurance. Tim Robinson, captain of Nottinghamshire, played in 29 Tests, and in India in 1984-85 scored three Test centuries and averaged 57.40. Farokh Engineer opened and kept wicket for India in most of his 46 Tests; he also played 175 first-class matches for Lancashire and saw every ball in this last series, as Hindi commentator for BSkyB.
So what went wrong?
Robinson: 'Firstly, let me say it's not all gloom and doom. There are some very fine players in the England team and they have not suddenly become useless overnight. Not long ago, in the World Cup, we were among the best. We picked the right squad for the tour but we may not have picked the right XI on the day. The turning point, as it turned out, was the selection for the first Test.
'One or two players seemed uncertain as to their role in the team - Alec Stewart for one. It's vital that each player knows exactly what he's supposed to do for team performance.'
Engineer: 'England never got to terms with either the conditions or the Indian spinners. Your colleagues in the media had written India off when they should have known that India at home are a very different proposition to India abroad.
'The Indian spinners are three young boys learning their trade. Kumble could get murdered in club cricket because he doesn't really turn the ball; batsmen who are confident and who have no inhibitions would get a lot of runs. Your batsmen were being dismissed by a straight ball.
'Venkatapathy Raju couldn't maintain his length and line yet your batsmen couldn't even show a simple forward defence, getting to the pitch of the ball.'
Denness: 'Getting the right balance for the squad when you are choosing for a tour of six one-day internationals and three Tests was never going to be easy. So few of our players have much experience of combating spinners on slow turning pitches that we mustn't read too much in what happened to the batting.
'What concerns me was the bowling; our strike bowlers took few wickets and couldn't keep it tight, while our spinners were unable to bowl them out on helpful surfaces. That is worrying because we have few bowlers of Test class. We must have a good look at the selection system.'
Illingworth: 'I've enjoyed watching the cricket in India because it's been played on good sporting pitches. It's been glaringly obvious, for many years now, that until our batsmen learn to play spinners on those kind of pitches they will struggle.
'If a county club had prepared surfaces like those for the Tests in India they would have been reported by the umpires. All we seem to want is bland, do-nothing pitches that bring boring cricket; so I don't expect to be watching much four-day cricket. There's nothing wrong with three-day cricket if the bowlers, especially the spinners, are given a chance. We've been handicapping ourselves for the past 10 years and now we've paid the price.'
What can we do to pick up the pieces?
Illingworth: 'I cannot see too many changes being made for the Ashes series because the selectors do not have that many options. David Gower might come back and we'll have to think about the order. Alec Stewart was doing a good job as an opener but seems to have been messed about. The bowlers seem to pick themselves but we missed a golden chance to give another young spinner experience of India. Shaun Udal is our best off-spin prospect and yet he wasn't chosen for either this tour or for the A team. Madness. He might have come back from India ready to take over from John Emburey. As it is, we are still looking.'
Denness: 'The first thing Ted Dexter has to do is to get together with Keith Fletcher and decide upon a selection policy. Have we got the right balance of responsibility? The captain has to have input on selection. I know from my own experience that a new captain has little say but as you get into the job your opinion counts for more, but there can come a time when a captain has too much say.
'It may be that the right way to do it would be for the chairman to take the captain's views to the committee, for them to pick the squad. The Australians have three selectors who give Allan Border his team and there seems to be much less debate about selection there. The captain must have power in selection, but does he need a veto?'
Should Graham Gooch stand down?
Robinson: 'That would be a disaster for English cricket. He's our best batsman and a very good captain. England v Australia is a completely different exercise and I can see no reason whatsoever for changing the captain now. We mustn't forget the good times that have come under Gooch's leadership.'
Denness: 'Graham must stay. He has worked very hard to mould this side and he's far and away the man best qualified to lead it.
'I'm not that despondent about what has happened. We've still got some very capable players for a series against Australia. My only reservation about Graham is that he can appear indecisive.'
Illingworth: 'I expect Graham will stay but I was disappointed with his performances in India, as no doubt he is.
'There was a lack of imagination in using his spinners. Why didn't John Emburey go round the wicket more often? Why didn't Phil Tufnell bowl over the wicket to aim at the rough? Emburey would have had a better chance of winning lbws on a turning pitch. I wasn't happy with the fields set for the spinners.
'Graham himself hasn't been playing well. There is a lack of movement in the front foot but he continues to get away with it and make a lot of runs. He wouldn't have got too many against Yorkshire in the 1960s when we had one or two fast-mediums who could put the ball on the spot and move it around.
'That said, Graham remains the best candidate, if only because there isn't yet a real alternative.'
Engineer: 'Gooch has done a lot for English cricket. England's recent record, despite this last series, has been good and due mostly to Gooch's leadership. I can't conceive of another captain against the Aussies.
'I'll go further than that; if Graham Gooch captains England against Australia I'll back England to win the series.'
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