In an hour of breathtaking incompetence yesterday England were dismantled by India. In the equally astonishing hour that followed it was made abundantly clear that this will not herald any imminent change.
This is a team who have gone 10 Test matches without a win, with a captain and senior players bereft of form and direction allied to a bunch of novitiates who must wonder what on earth is happening. Yet the loss to India by 95 runs in the second Investec Test – when England were utterly hapless against fast, hostile bouncers – prompted only declarations of faith.
India had not won at Lord’s for 28 years, had not won anywhere away from home for 16 matches. But when they sensed their opportunity yesterday, they took it and England drifted gormlessly into the trap. Ishant Sharma, a renascent fast bowler, took 7 for 74, the best figures by an India bowler in England. He was superb, England made him irrepressible.
Alastair Cook, the captain who has overseen seven losses in nine matches, declared movingly and firmly that he was going nowhere, a place his employers had already identified as their preferred destination for him. Before the wicketkeeper made himself unavailable for the rest of the summer, Cook also expressed his continued support for Matt Prior, the most exposed of his veteran cohorts. That backing for Prior seems to make every other position inviolable.
The selectors may or may not decide differently when they meet this morning to discuss the squad for the next match, which begins in Southampton on Sunday. They could omit a fast bowler or two and call it rotation.
They may talk of Ian Bell’s place. The trouble is that all the time Cook’s position is untouchable as captain and opening batsman, despite a paltry contribution going back a year, it is difficult to make anybody else take the blame.
Perhaps they will prove to be rewarded. Perhaps by refusing to play the game that usually applies to errant Cabinet ministers – protestations of full support for a few days followed by resignation or sacking – England are breaking the mould by playing the long game and will come back to beat India and pulverise Australia in the Ashes next year. Perhaps.
Since England were provided with a pitch to die for, this was a significant reversal. Their bowlers, especially the vaunted duet of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, who are considered cricketing royalty, were outsmarted by their more canny and sensible India counterparts.
From the first morning on, when they could and should have swept through a substantial part of the Indian top order, England were chasing the game. There were times when they all but caught up with it but it always eluded them, like a particularly tricky tag opponent.
Despite the shortcomings of Cook and Bell, the bowlers have become more of a concern for England than the batsmen. India will take to Southampton the knowledge, nay the certainty, that they are better than England at England’s game. Yet for almost the entire morning yesterday it looked as though it might turn out all right, that England would make amends for previous errors in the match, finally catch up with the game and repulse the vultures circling round Cook.
Joe Root and Moeen Ali were astute and calm. They realised that all England had to do was bat the day out and they were home.
The pitch was flat, so different in colour from the green monster that was revealed to the world on Thursday morning that it might have been on a different planet. The ball was not swinging despite the heavy atmosphere. Only 35 runs came from 16 overs in the first hour but then suddenly Root rattled to his 50 with three fours in four balls off Sharma. They were daring to dream.
But Sharma’s next over was the last before lunch. In a calculated hunch, M S Dhoni, India’s captain, decided on a short-ball barrage which he signalled by posting a short leg and three men out on the hook. Sharma responded wonderfully.
Two bumpers had already been worryingly directed when he loped in for the last ball before the break. It was again short, it lifted, Moeen averted his eyes and twisted away from it. The ball crashed into his gloves and went straight to short leg. The game was changed for a last time.
After lunch, India kept bowling bouncers, England kept hooking. Prior was most culpable, aiming a shot in the air to deep midwicket, but Ben Stokes with his third Test duck in a row was not far behind. When Root, who had been exemplary, also succumbed by pulling to deep backward square leg, that was that.
The match ended in appositely risible style. Jimmy Anderson was facing Ravindra Jadeja, his adversary from Trent Bridge. Both men have been charged with breaches of the ICC code of conduct for a row they had in the pavilion at Trent Bridge after the players left the field for lunch.
There is bound to be some edge to their relationship. Anderson pushed Jadeja into the off side and, for reasons known only to himself, set off for a run. Sent back by his partner, Liam Plunkett, he was stranded as Jadeja scuttled to his right and threw down the stumps at the striker’s end as Anderson dived for his ground.
India have won three series in England before but only one previous match at Lord’s, in 1986. They have gradually been improving away from home and gave South Africa a run for their money in Johannesburg last December.
Their loss here by 4-0 three years ago did not augur well for this summer but their choice of a multi-fangled bunch of seamers in their squad of 18 now seems to have been a masterstroke. Sharma took the wickets yesterday with a brilliantly controlled burst of vintage pace but the controlled penetration given them by Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been equally significant. England are in deep trouble for all sorts of reasons.
Shot of the day
For sheer, unadulterated daftness, Matt Prior’s hook in the air to Ishant Sharma with three men posted out on the leg side – precisely for that eventuality – took the biscuit. It hastened the end of the match and possibly of Prior’s international career.
Ball of the day
On the stroke of lunch, India took a decision to pepper England with bouncers. The last ball of the last over was a brutal lifter from Sharma. Moeen Ali fatally took his eyes off it and turned his back as the ball cannoned into his gloves and went to short leg.
Moment of the day
How piquant that it should end with the pair whose run-in at Trent Bridge resulted in code of conduct charges being laid. Jimmy Anderson nudged into the off side, called for a single and was sent back. Jadeja hit the stumps as Anderson dived forlornly.