It is looking bad for England and Andy Flower has been around long enough to know it. Seven defeats from 12 Test matches this year, five out of six away from home, the latest by nine wickets, is the form of a side in decline.
His request as England returned to Mumbai was entirely reasonable: deliver the verdict not now when the series against India is only a match old but when it is over and all the evidence is in. Nor was there any sense of delaying the inevitable in this.
In all, he said it three times. “Let’s judge our batsmen at the end of this tour not after one Test match. I sincerely hope that at the end of the tour we have fought our way back and shown real skill against spin. I still believe our batsmen can do that.”
And: “I can’t put my finger on why they are not dovetailing as they did in 2010 and 2011. But I would like to say there are three Tests left. We’ll be judged at the end of it, no doubt, and that is the right time to make final judgements.”
And again finally, conceding the way it was looking: “We have to overturn what seems predictable at the moment. We have to turn that round. I am excited about that challenge as I was before the first Test. It will be interesting to see if we are good enough.”
England have batted badly throughout most of this year. The 191 they mustered in the first innings was the fourth time that they have been bowled out for under 200 in their six Asian Tests. But even at home the gigantic totals of the previous two years have eluded them. In 2011, England had six first innings total above 450 which included one of 500, one of 600 and one of 700. In 2010 there were five totals above 450, two more above 400. In 2012 they have scored 450 once.
The batsmen seem now to be strangers who cannot trust each other because they cannot trust themselves, whereas for two halcyon years it was a mutual benefit society. The odd aspect of this is that they are by and large the same men. Perhaps they have become different players, or perhaps it simply is that spin on these slow, low pitches is anathema. Flower maintained that he still believes that there is nothing fundamentally awry, but maybe he has to believe that because otherwise it may be beyond repair. “I would like to think not,” he said.
“I think there are some very basic things that we haven’t done well enough and I hope I’m not making personal excuses here. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the environment nor anything to do with the team dynamics or the way we train. I think that we have failed in a number of first innings and if you do that in the subcontinent you pay the price.”
England have practised long and hard here in excellent nets against spin of a quality to be found in any county side back at home, probably higher. True, they were denied much match practice against spin before the first Test but long and earnest discussions were taking place daily at practice about what they had to do, how they had to play. Yet they showed up at the Motera Stadium and tamely succumbed again. Flower is at a loss, hoping, praying that it will be different. “I hope there is no real reason why it should keep happening in the first innings,” he said.
But there is something else and it may imperil the cause still more. When England’s batting has come up short before this year, their bowling has almost invariably been right up to the mark. Not in Ahmedabad it wasn’t.
It was not wretched, but it was not the England attack of yore. By Flower’s admission India’s seamers had outbowled England’s seamers, which is not the way it is supposed to be and probably could not have been said more than about twice in all the Test matches between the sides going back 80 years.
“It may be a little hard to judge them on pace on that pitch and it’s hard to judge them as a group and say they’ve all lost pace,” said Flower. “Jimmy Anderson is bowling at the same pace. I think Stuart Broad has dropped a little pace, perhaps in searching for the fuller length that he wanted in England.”
Flower dismissed Broad’s outburst on Twitter in which he disparaged the opinion of ex-players and derided press conferences as mundane. But he said he had had a word with his vice-captain about it. The discussion inevitably included Kevin Pietersen. The pre-ordained script said that Pietersen, the most controversial England player of recent times, would come to India and immediately bludgeon a match-winning century. It was what he certainly intended after the discord of the summer which saw him being dropped from the side. Instead he played like a man who had never danced before in the early stages of a Strictly Come Dancing audition.
“Look, Kevin’s a very fine cricketer and he has 21 Test centuries,” said Flower. “This will not go down as one of his memorable Tests, of course, but he’s got three more Tests to contribute to winning games for England.
“In this last Test the left-arm spinner got him out twice and he obviously struggled against him in this last Test but only a few Tests ago against Sri Lanka he scored a magnificent 150 and they had a reasonable left-arm spinner playing in subcontinent conditions. The method he used there was a very successful one. I’m not just talking about his very attacking method but his defensive one too. He’s a very experienced cricketer and I trust he’ll bring that experience to bear in the next Test match.”
England have scored a mere seven Test hundreds this year, which is not good enough. To win here they will probably need to add at least four, probably five more. Flower knows that, too.