Out of adversity England suddenly see new horizons
The week that made a tour
From chaos to serenity is an odyssey that usually takes a couple of lifetimes according to Greek mythology. It has taken England less than a week to make the journey slap bang in the searing heat of Indian reality.
In the space of a few calamitous days the tourists lost their captain to a knee injury that could threaten his illustrious career, their celebrated vice-captain who had to depart because of pressing family concerns and (yet again) the fast bowler who was supposed to provide their main, if not solitary chance of winning the series on the subcontinent. Their only trustworthy spinner, at least the only known quantity, failed to make the trip because of another chronic injury, to his hip.
That was four of the Ashes dozen - Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick, Simon Jones and Ashley Giles - all of them festooned with honours and the gratitude of the nation. That their losses, no less than a third of the triumphant boys of summer, would at present prove insurmountable was not exactly a contentious point to make.
Apart from the illustrious quartet, other players had been succumbing to the more minor but no less beastly inconveniences that tend to beset the incautious European in India. It was a mess. Coming second would be tough. What has happened since has not only provided a possibly seminal change in the future direction of England's team, but has also cast doubt on the very notion that the Ashes squad, a body of men that seemed bound to stay together for years, will ever take the field in any combination of 11 from 12 again.
India have contributed partly to the way events have unfolded. They too have a team in transition, not quite sure of the direction to be taken, trying to identify the young men, from dozens of contenders, who can help the cause. Of their squad of 15 for the opening Test, four were uncapped. One eventually played. But still they had come off the back of a 4-1 thumping of Pakistan in a one-day series. They were cock-a-hoop.
Mostly, the developments in the first four days of the First Test were stimulated and provoked by England. Adversity has brought out the best in them and that can be explained not only by human obstinacy but by the good practices put in place over several years embracing the tenures of Nasser Hussain, Vaughan and behind the scenes planning.
England were ready, sort of, for the kind of catastrophe that struck them because of the system. The National Academy, the A Team being on tour and in practice, the back-up staff, the readiness with which the squad can accept new players.
It was easy to scoff silently at the idea of unity (wait until the Indian spinners get among you and see what that does to your precious unity!) but it has operated wonderfully. Not all England's three debutants have performed auspiciously but Alastair Cook and Monty Panesar have delivered in Nagpur, India's fruit garden, as if to the orange grove born.
Cook's maiden hundred yesterday was as memorable for the calm method as for the statistical history that it made. Panesar played with equal control. If Ian Blackwell was, to adapt a favourite phrase of coach Duncan Fletcher, yet to respond to his invitation to come to the party, two out of three ain't bad.
The response has been invigorating. Flintoff was always certain to lead by example and it was equally inevitable that every single member of the team would respond to his monumental, encouraging presence. His pride in being captain has been obvious and genuine and that is bound to have been infectious.
It was not without irony that Flintoff's best friend, Stephen Harmison, was at his least incisive for much of India's first innings. He got better. The man who did most of the damage, including the exemplary Panesar and his 40 lovely, thoughtful overs, was Matthew Hoggard.
Hoggard is a grand team man. He has never given Vaughan anything less than his all and they have probably got on better as the years have gone by than they did when they were growing up at Yorkshire together. Still, it was hard to avoid seeing that Hoggard seemed to relish bowling for Flintoff.
He was in form and he had prepared impeccably in the warm-up matches. Granted some conditions that assisted early swing he was almost rapacious with the new ball. He did not do much, but he did enough and, as they say conventional and reverse swingers do it both ways.
Hoggard's 6 for 57 was his best exhibition of swing bowling for England if not his best analysis. That is not to demean the 10 wickets he took in the epic Johannesburg victory 14 months ago but then it was swinging round corners and South Africa were mesmerised. At the Vidarbha ground Hoggard had to graft and was rewarded by a thrilling spell on Friday morning.
That was preceded by Paul Collingwood's maiden hundred, a crucial innings that might never have been played because Collingwood would not have been in the side. Of course you want to see Vaughan, Trescothick, Giles and the absolutely luckless Jones again but might Trescothick go in the middle order, might Panesar give Giles a run for his money? England have coped and it has been wonderful.
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