England’s promise that they were ready became a mantra before this Test series began. “We are ready, we are ready,” player after player intoned like brainwashed cult followers lining up on the way to their doom.
What they were ready for remains open to speculation after the third day of the First Test against India. A good hiding? Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding when they get home?
The tourists were still in it after a fashion by the close.
Alastair Cook, their captain, and Nick Compton, their debutant, shared in a painstaking, vigilant and, most importantly, unbeaten opening partnership of 111 from 38 overs.
They showed pluck and determination and method and some other qualities. Unfortunately, it was in the second innings, the first having rather passed the tourists by amid a welter of apprehension and ineptitude in the face of clever but hardly unplayable spin bowling.
This belated endeavour reduced the deficit to a mere 219. England trailed by 330 on first innings, 131 short of saving the follow on which never looked remotely likely. If they had learned the recent lessons meted out to them in Asia by Pakistan and Sri Lanka it was not immediately apparent.
Starting the day at 41 for 3 and by all accounts in defiant mood they were all out for 191 with a third of the day left, eight of their wickets falling to spin. If one player must be singled out for embodying all that was wrong – and sadly he must – it was Ian Bell.
There is no doubt that Bell is an authentic Test cricketer, the purest of England’s present batsmen with more than 5500 Test runs. But he has been well short of fulfilment in Asia where his average is in the mid-30s (and below 30 if Bangladesh is excluded).
He came in after 50 minutes play yesterday at the dismissal of Kevin Pietersen and danced down the pitch to his first ball, intent on hitting it over the top. It was breath-taking in its audacity and woeful in its execution. He never made the pitch; the ball spooned up to deep mid-off where Sachin Tendulkar had time to set himself to pouch a straightforward catch.
Off trooped Bell for this third first ball duck in Tests, his second this year. Whatever was going through his mind in the time he was waiting to bat can only be guessed at until he confesses. But all his thought processes were left whence he came.
Bell is flying home after this match to be with his wife when she gives birth to their first child. It is natural that much of his attention is on that – and he will in any case miss the Second Test in Mumbai – but if he was not in the right of state of mind to play in this match he should not have been picked. And if he was not in the right state of mind England, with a retinue that includes coaches, medical men and a psychologist, perhaps should have deduced it.
Nothing quite compared with that in England’s sad decline, which was in truth only a continuation of their poor form this year. What a fall from grace it has been: a 3-0 defeat against Pakistan, a draw in Sri Lanka after going behind, a victory against an insipid West Indies in cold, cold May, a drubbing by South Africa and now this.
Oh and a dispute with their star player which virtually brought the game in England to a standstill and which everybody is now trying to pretend never happened. Similar perhaps to the way they think they can now play spin in the sub-continent.
Before Bell’s sad demise, Cook and Pietersen had somehow held the spinners at bay. Occasionally, Pietersen was sublime, occasionally ridiculous. He was bowled prodding defensively at a straight one from Pragyan Ojha. It was his 21st dismissal in Test matches by a left arm spinner.
Ojha and his spin chum, Ravichandran Ashwin were both compelling in those morning overs. Four men were usually round the bat, chattering, stalking, waiting. Cook, who had looked in control, edged an off spinner from Ashwin to slip.
Before lunch, Samit Patel was given out lbw in Umesh Yadav’s first over of the match. It was a bad mistake by umpire Aleem Dar because on first and subsequent viewings it was clearly going down leg. Had the decision review system been used in this series it would have saved Patel in normal circumstances.
Then again, DRS would have sent Patel packing when he played across Ashwin on four, only for the appeal to be turned down. There were six poor decisions in all yesterday which DRS might have changed. Dar, the best umpire in the world, had a rare off day and it was worsened because his mistakes were allowed to stand. But India have a phobia about it and simply refuse to play with it,
As the ball grew softer, there was belated resistance from England’s tail, marshalled by Matt Prior. But Ojha took his tally to five and India wasted no time in enforcing the follow on.
Cook was reprieved when he swept at Ojha when he should have been given out on 37, sweeping, missing and stone dead lbw to Ojha, but he put it behind him. By the close he and Compo junior were rotating the strike, playing comfortably and probably wondering what it would be like if it had still been their first innings.