England must make bold choices to arrest this awful slide
India 521-8 dec & 80-1 England 191 & 406 (India win by nine wickets): Batsmen have still not learned how to play spin while bowlers have lost their cutting edge
England have three days to rectify the flaws that have haunted them for a year. Since they are still making the kind of mistakes that were costing them dear in January – poor judgement, bad shots, bewildering thinking – it may be a day or two, or perhaps a season or two, short of what is needed.
The suggestion, nay the promise, that they were ready for India in the first Test, which duly ended in defeat by nine wickets yesterday, was a teeny-weeny exaggeration. Almost nothing that most of their batsmen did in the match indicated conviction, belief or confidence.
It has been the story of virtually the entire year. England’s middle order has been seriously short of form and runs as it was in this latest defeat, the seventh in 12 Tests this year, which they started as the world’s No 1 side. How long ago that seems.
Here in Ahmedabad, the middle order, from three to six, contributed 68 runs but it was merely prolonging a dismal sequence. The collective average of those crucial run-scoring positions this year is below 30 and in no individual position is it above 40.
The first Test, far from being a surprise to shock the statisticians, was entirely predictable based on recent evidence. To this, England’s captain, Alastair Cook, and their wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, were noble exceptions. They were the top two scorers in both innings and their survival yesterday was the tourists’ solitary hope of saving the match.
When both went in the first hour, Cook for an epic innings of 176 and a match aggregate of 217, Prior for 91 giving him 139 runs in the game, the defeat was inevitable. It arrived before lunch had been digested, India romping deservedly home by lashing the meagre 76 runs they required in 93 balls.
That England took the match into the fifth day after their first innings capitulation was a matter of honour which offered a crumb of hope. The importance of the toss should also not be overlooked. Any side would have wanted to win it on the surface supplied here but self-assured teams overcome such setbacks.
Cook conceded after the match that they probably got their selection for the match wrong, which means that the team will almost certainly be changed for the second Test that begins in Mumbai on Friday. The obvious amendment will be the inclusion of a second spinner, Monty Panesar, since hindsight has now confirmed that in India such a balance is merely a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.
But the tourists will also have to replace Ian Bell, who left the stadium before the match was finished yesterday to fly home to be with his wife for the imminent birth of their first child. Bell had a poor match and he is one of several players trading on reputation and past performance. It is fervently to be hoped that a safe arrival will provide a richly gifted player with the incentive to score more runs more often.
There are several options open to the selectors, a party of 17 giving them an array of permutations. Presumably, Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan are competing for the place vacated by Bell, and Morgan’s left-handedness seems to be an asset, particularly with so many overs of spin being bowled at them.
Bairstow can already consider himself unfortunate. One of five No 6s to be used by England in 12 Test matches this year, he has also made the highest score in the position, 95 at Lord’s, followed immediately by the second highest, 54.
In effect, he was dropped for the next Test match, the one that ended yesterday, albeit that it was three months later. It is permissible to wonder whether England would have dared do it, despite the failings he has revealed against spin, had he scored the extra five runs for his maiden century .
If the selectors were in a bold mood, they may pick both Morgan and Bairstow, dropping Samit Patel. This would be extremely harsh on Patel who was the victim here of a poor decision in the first innings and a superb ball in the second, and bowled adequately within his limitations. But it is conceivable.
The bowling is expected to show only once change, Panesar for Tim Bresnan, which would diminish the batting. Panesar’s stock has risen for being out of the side but while he bowled with control in Asia earlier this year the rest of his cricket, especially his fielding, was spasmodically dreadful.
However, this is not straightforward because there is a mood that Steve Finn should be accommodated in the England side – and he should – because he is quick and capable, even on these pitches, of hurrying good batsman.
But including him, assuming Panesar’s selection, would either involve having a five-man attack and shortening a batting order that already fails too regularly. The other way of including Finn would be to omit Broad, the vice-captain and, with 40 wickets in 10 Test matches this year, the leading seamer. Broad is an admirable cricketer who is admired by the management. It probably will not happen but it ought to be discussed.
There are two huge worries for England now. The first is that the batsmen have not (yet) learned from the errors of their previous ways. The second is that the bowlers may not be as proficient as they were.
Until recently, England expected to take 20 wickets wherever they were playing (it even happened in the UAE and Sri Lanka in three of the four matches they lost). Against South Africa in the summer they managed it only once and against India, on a slow, flat pitch, they took only nine in total.
As for the batting order, England have scored a total of seven hundreds in their Test matches this year, two of those by the retired Andrew Strauss. Jonathan Trott is not the run machine he was, out 14 times below 20 in 18 innings, which suggests lapses in concentration. Bell is having a similarly lean run, Kevin Pietersen was desperate to succeed in this match after is travails of the late summer and that desperation might have been his undoing. Three days may not be not enough, but it is all England have.
Timeline: How the final day unfolded
4.59am GMT: Wicket, Cook b Ojha
After Alastair Cook’s staggering nine hours at the crease, Pragyan Ojha takes the crucial wicket of the captain with England on 365-7. Ojha also earlier removed Matt Prior on 91.
5.54am: Wicket, Bresnan c Kohli, b Zaheer
England are all out for 406, as Tim Bresnan’s drive from Zaheer Khan’s delivery is caught at short cover.
6.30am: India resume
Chasing 77 runs to win, India have plenty of time to wrap this up. Cheteshwar Pujara, who hit 206 runs in the first innings, opens with Virender Sehwag.
7.25am: India secure nine-wicket victory
That’s it, Virat Kohli hits Graeme Swann for four, and India conclusively draw first blood in the series at Ahmedabad.
29 Number of fours hit by Pujara in his two innings
14.86 Broad’s batting average in away Tests. His home average is 34.52
7 England have lost seven of their 12 Test matches so far this year
374 Number of balls Cook faced in his 176-run, nine-hour knock
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