James Lawton: Visitors' lack of appetite and fight threatens to spoil victory

The men of the ICC face indictment for neglect of their most vital responsibilities: among them, the preservation of the most superior form of the game

James Lawton
Friday 28 October 2011 12:45
Yuvraj Singh is hit as India struggle to show any stomach for the fight
Yuvraj Singh is hit as India struggle to show any stomach for the fight

Having issued its ridiculous edict that the Ian Bell fiasco was somehow a triumph for the spirit of cricket, the world governing ICC should now get somewhat more serious and order the equivalent of a stewards' inquiry.

It is one which would be charged with examining why a Test series that promised to take us to the stars has left us, soon enough, in something close to horror.

We are talking, of course, about how it is when a contest descends into a rout, when something that was supposed to define the intrigue and splendour of Test cricket develops all the inherent drama of a gang ambush.

The trouble, though, is that if the examination is conducted properly, and the reasons why a Test series offering the reward of a No 1 world ranking has turned into such a competitive travesty are properly sought, the ICC will have to place itself in the dock.

India, it is hardly too much to say, came here under false pretences.

It is a hard accusation, no doubt – and it has to be tempered by the fact that England's cricket, it goes almost without saying, has been brilliant.

England came in hard and belligerent and shot through with the understanding that the prize that came with a two-Test margin of victory was the right to call themselves the best team on the cricket planet – and scarcely for a moment have they missed a beat.

There have been immense performances buoyed with the kind of unflagging belief that yesterday made Tim Bresnan the latest hero.

Injury setbacks to such key players as Chris Tremlett, Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann have hardly registered on the Richter scale of crisis. Anywhere you look you see a sportsman operating at or around the limits of his ability.

But then you look at India, still, theoretically at least, the No 1 team, and what do you see? You see a team of embarrassing frailty. You see the imminent possibility of a collective nervous breakdown.

Why? No doubt some reasons run deeper than others, and for a start their greatest players are at the wrong end of their thirties, but unquestionably a huge contribution has come from those men of the ICC who now face indictment for neglect of their most vital responsibilities. Chief among them, surely, is the preservation of the most superior form of the game which has been placed in their charge.

How well have Indian preparations for this climactic contest been monitored? About as well, you have to say, as the supervision of the trends that led to the Pakistan betting scandal that disfigured another English summer so recently.

Implicit in the remit of a world authority jealous of the game's reputation is the demand that when teams of the stature of India come into such a vital series they are seen by the fans who have so far filled Lord's and Trent Bridge to be at least vaguely fit for purpose.

Thrashed at Lord's, overwhelmed again at Trent Bridge, the Indians have failed to earn even this most slighting of tributes. They have looked, for all but the most fleeting intervals, tired, demoralised and thoroughly disenchanted with their professional lives – at least the ones they are living now and for the next few weeks of hard examination.

It is reasonable to conclude that this is a direct consequence of their time in the unbreakable Gulag of catchpenny one-day and Twenty20 cricket.

Some wonderfully gifted cricketers have come to England so far from the fighting edge required for such a series that it is now impossible to preserve the illusion that we have a serious dispute over whose right it is to claim which is the world's most serious cricket team.

At Lord's the margin was the chasm of 196 runs. At Trent Bridge the gap had stretched to 319.

Yesterday we had the ultimate cricket pathos of Sachin Tendulkar, the Little Master still pursuing his 100th international century, polishing a little diamond of an innings among the Indian rubble. He hit boundaries of exquisite quality, he explored the best of what is left of his repertoire and showed us why he has been revered for so long. It was like looking at a masterpiece hung in an otherwise ransacked museum.

You knew that the pleasure was bound to be hauntingly transitory. That much was certain when the great Rahul Dravid went cheaply and V V S Laxman fell to a ball from James Anderson that was so perfectly delivered it will surely always be remembered along with the look of bewilderment that came to the face of its victim.

Laxman gave the impression he had just been involved in a car crash and in a way, of course, he had. India have been careering off course ever since the majority of the team arrived after the series in the Caribbean with just three days of preparation in local conditions for their first trial at Lord's. Their best bowler, Zaheer Khan, arrived directly from the Indian Premier League, plainly unfit for the challenge of a full blown and hugely important Test series.

Now we are told the swashbuckling Virender Sehwag will arrive today as a one-man detachment of the Seventh Cavalry. The star of the World Cup, troubled by a shoulder injury, was, like Khan, deemed too valuable a property of the Indian Premier League to permit proper preparation for the Test series in which India plainly needed every scrap of available talent.

If, that is, they were to defend their status at the top of the rankings, if they were to underline the claims of their admirers that they were uniquely equipped to make the point that the playing of the 2,000th Test match at Lord's represented a perfect opportunity to prove the ultimately enduring appeal of the purest form of the game.

Instead of such a declaration, we have experienced something quite different. We have seen alarming evidence that the reserves of Indian talent, which for long we had assumed ran deepest of all with the decline of the Australian empire, are running dangerously thin.

With Sehwag and Khan injured, and the great triumvirate of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman contemplating the end of magnificent careers, what have the Indians shown us? They have produced skeletal performances. Their captain, M S Dhoni, a giant of the World Cup, has been lost at the batting crease and at times his wicketkeeping has been embarrassingly rank.

The seam bowlers have been dogged but rarely inspired, and if the conditions have not helped spin, Harbhajan Singh has scarcely been recognisable. Yesterday the slow bowling of Suresh Raina was pitiful enough to make you avert your eyes, especially when Stuart Broad heaved successive deliveries into the crowd.

Where were the kings and the sorcerers of Indian cricket? They were ground down to near dust by an England team which had properly prepared for this allegedly heavyweight contest. They were beaten in every aspect of the game and it was a sight that, like it or not, took some edge away from the brilliant deeds of the winning team.

Broad, Bell, Bresnan and Anderson, the persecutor of Sachin Tendulkar no less, have no need to dwell on some of the factors that shaped their days of superb triumph. All of them worked brilliantly for their place at the top of world cricket. None of them could have done more to come to the challenge at the peak of their form and their appetites.

But then it still may be necessary to say that maybe their strength and their ambition and great ability should really have been engaged in something more of an examination.

England may have run like authentic champions these last few days, but that doesn't lessen the need for the stewards' inquiry.

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