After a long year of failure and incompetence which seemed as though it might never end, England delivered an impeccable exhibition of the Test-match arts. It is much too premature to suggest that they are back to where they were, or even that they have turned the corner on the way there, but their victory over India by 266 runs in the third Test here was both clinical and beguiling.
It arrived 12 minutes before lunch on the fifth day, about two hours before anyone thought probable, and levels the Investec Test series at 1-1. England won every session of the match, played more positively than their opponents and made fewer errors.
Jimmy Anderson, their argumentative fast bowler who faces an International Cricket Council (ICC) disciplinary hearing tomorrow, was man of the match for the second time in the series for a wonderfully controlled display of swing bowling. It yielded seven wickets and was compelling in its artistry. Most of the damage on the final morning, however, was inflicted by Moeen Ali, who took four wickets to finish with 6 for 67.
Moeen was brought into the side at the start of this season as a batsman and part-time off spinner, but the quality of his craft has burgeoned. He did not turn the ball much during India’s second innings but his controlled drift disturbed men who, it was thought, would play him with a bamboo stick. He might as well have been a snake charmer.
The figures were almost a match for the career-best haul of 6 for 65 achieved by Graeme Swann, his much vaunted predecessor as the lead spinner in the side. England are anxiously trying not to make too much of Moeen’s success, but the feeling is beginning to grow that he might cut the mustard as the side’s authentic spin option. The search for that is definitely on hold. He has 15 wickets in the series. Only Anderson has more.
Above all, the match was a triumph for England’s Alastair Cook, who after five days of cricket suddenly seems not so much beleaguered as riding on a white charger to glory. He scored 95 and 70 not out, which might take to 29 his run of innings without a century but was sufficient to indicate a return to form. As captain, it seemed to make him more confident and almost all he did worked. The fact that the bowlers responded, doubtless encouraged by conditions where there was always a hint of swing movement, helped him immensely.
But what a game of narrow margins it is. Had Cook been held at first slip on the first morning when he was on 15, as he should have been, the effect might have pervaded the whole team. As it is, he was dropped by Ravindra Jadeja and never repeated the lapse. His calculated policy of playing as far forward as he could with a studiously straight bat paid handsome dividends.
The fourth Test begins at Old Trafford next Thursday, giving the players the longest break between matches of the series. Still, that does not mean they will have time to draw breath. England have named an unchanged 13-man squad for the match, knowing that they might be without Anderson if he is found guilty of a level three breach of the ICC code of conduct, which could bring him a four-match Test ban.
The evidence so far suggests that these are two evenly matched sides but India were too often careless with the bat, frequently less than searching with the ball and error-strewn in the field. The fact that their captain, MS Dhoni, said after the match that the best catchers they had were in the slip cordon does not mean they are yet good enough.
It was generally expected that England would have to work long and hard for the six wickets they still required today. Anderson, bowling with zip and accuracy immediately, swiftly gave the lie to that prognosis. With his third ball of the day he persuaded Rohit Sharma to dab at a ball going away outside off stump. Jos Buttler was presented with a straightforward catch.
Four overs later, Anderson had the prized wicket of Dhoni, who played away from his body. It might have been a batsman’s error but there is something about Anderson in this mood which makes him hard to resist.
Just as it seemed that Anderson would sweep the tourists aside, along came Moeen. In rapid succession he took the last four wickets to fall in 23 balls, all with deliveries that did not appear to turn. Jadeja’s drive at a full ball went through bat and pad; Bhuvneshwar Kumar was held at short leg off bat and pad, undone by drift; Mohammed Shami lunged at a straight one and was bowled. Finally, the entertaining Pankaj Singh swiped a couple of boundaries and was then bowled expecting spin where there was none.
At the other end, Chris Woakes was denied a wicket. This was unfair of the cricketing gods for this was an extremely tidy performance by Woakes and his superiors in the side were quick to pay due credit.
The rest was a dash for souvenir stumps. Since six members of the side had never appeared in a winning team in a Test match there were just enough to go round.
Between now and Thursday the mood could change again. If Anderson is found guilty for whatever he was supposed to have done to Jadeja in the pavilion at Trent Bridge on the second day of the Test there, England will miss him at Old Trafford and be distinctly miffed about it. If he is cleared, he plays and the spring will stay in their step.
Whatever happens, England may like to rethink slightly the way in which they approach the game. Anderson is entitled to his grumpiness but the way he bowled in Southampton was electrifying. It does not need attitude.