Unfit and out of touch, India never stood a chance
This was supposed to be a series to savour but jeering spectators have been left feeling cheated
Sunday 21 August 2011
The jeers were as loud as the cheers, and no less persistent. The cheers were for Ian Bell when he hit one more of his 23 boundaries on his way to – and then past – 200. The jeers were for the performance of India in the field.
On Friday morning they had laid aside their lethargy and played like Test cricketers for one whole session. Yesterday it was back to normal and the full house at The Oval had made up its collective mind. These Indians could not bowl and certainly could not field.
When Ishant Sharma – who can bowl –fumbled the ball at fine leg, the crowd at the Vauxhall End jeered. When he did so again, they jeered mercilessly. When did it a third and fourth time, jeers tuned into ironic cheers. There was still pleasure to be had watching Bell take advantage of MS Dhoni's positioning of six men on the boundary. Bell was able to punctuate the boundaries by picking up singles at will from a dab into wide open spaces. And it was a relief to watch Ravi Bopara denying his demons and scoring freely, but there was never any feelingthat this was a contest.
After England had scored 134 runs in 30 overs before lunch, the only question was when England would declare and give India one last chance to show that they can bat. Andrew Strauss would probably have preferred to bat on past 600 again, but three-and-a-half hours of rain left England only two days and one session to dismiss India twice on a good batting wicket.
We were about to experience the last chapter in an extraordinary and memorable reversal of fortunes, and nothing dramatised this more succinctly than the dismissal for the third time in eight balls in the series of Virender Sehwag – the player preferred to Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton in a World All-time Best XI publicised by the ICC. In April, India had won the World Cup in Mumbai, proving that they were the world's leading one-day team as well as the top team in the World Test Championship. Led by Sachin Tendulkar, their top order was the envy of all. The bowling was not in the same class but Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh were world-class, and Dhoni was unquestionably a charismatic captain.
England were too tired to perform well in the World Cup, but they had humbled Australia in the winter and were evidently perfectly capable of challenging India for top spot among the Test teams. This was a series to savour. Expectation knew no ceiling. It would have been no surprise if this Oval Test had been the decider.
Instead, it has been all anti-climax. India have been undermined by injuries to Zaheer, Harbhajan, Praveen Kumar and Yuvraj Singh, but nobody now believes the result would have been different had they remained fit. Good teams behave as though luck is on their side; losing teams make their own bad luck. This summer India turned up unfit, underprepared and out of touch with their basic skills.
As we now know, they did not stand a chance. You begin to feel a squeak of sympathy for Duncan Fletcher, the old curmudgeon who must have felt he had won the Lottery when he was appointed India's coach. Yet so steep and dramatic has been the descent that it sends anoraks into obscure statistical websites looking forother cases when expectations were so badly dashed – especially when the forecasters get the weatherwrong and it rains on The Oval for several hours.
A short list starts with England, who were guilty of dashing expectations when they went to Australia in 2006-07; 20 years earlier, they had confounded expectations by winning a series they were confidently expected to lose – they couldn't bat, couldn't bowl and couldn't field.
The series that bears the closest similarity to this one took place between the team generally regardedas the best in Tests and the pretenders for the title. It happened in 1958-59in Australia.
After crushing victories in the previous two series, England were expected to make it three in succession. None the less, they were demolished 4-0 by Richie Benaud's team. Peter May's celebrated England squad complained that Australia had picked chuckers, but the series was actuallywon by brilliant bowling by Benaud and Alan Davidson.
There is one group that does not share the disappointment felt by spectators who had looked forward to a great series. When one Ben Goldsmith tweeted his disappointment that the contest had turned out so one-sided, Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad both replied that cricket lovers ought to be enjoying England's remarkable victories. But the enjoyment would have been even more profound had the contest been keener.
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