A four-test series can be, like that New Zealand bowler named Cunis, neither one thing nor the other. Or it can be just right, short and snappy yet long enough to ebb and flow like a full five-Tester. The last time England played a four-Test series, against New Zealand in Nasser Hussain's first taste of captaincy, it all ended in tears at The Oval after they had been 1-0 up. There is now a 60:40 chance of the same happening again.
It's hard to be categorical as each team in this series has made the other look very good – and very bad. At first it was England who set the pace and ran the show. But since day five at Trent Bridge, when England's bowlers tired, India have been just as dominant.
England didn't so much come down to earth at Headingley as disappear into a hole in the ground. But it wasn't the batsmen who lost the match. Facing 628, some England teams would have done worse than 273 and 309. It was the bowling that lost it, or rather, as Hussain stressed, the whole performance in the field. Of all England's errors, the most critical came when Rahul Dravid was on 53 and Andy Caddick at last drew him into a nick, only for Andy Flintoff to drop a regulation catch at second slip. After that, despite dismissing the unexpectedly influential Sanjay Bangar, Flintoff never looked forward, and neither did England. They lost because they allowed India to build three big partnerships in conditions where par was one.
On launching Friday's twilight blitz, waiting for the cover of darkness like Americans, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly reduced England to rubble – a state they normally reach only in mid-Ashes. The sort of bowlers Hussain needed were mostly in the press box – a Pringle, a Selvey, above all a Fraser. On reflection, perhaps it was our sports editor who lost it.
England also helped, especially by falling to a modest seam attack. Michael Vaughan was out twice to the spirited but limited Ajit Agarkar; Hussain fell in the first innings to Zaheer Khan, Mark Butcher and John Crawley in the second to Bangar.
England are now the underdogs but they could yet bite back. Here's how: First, Hussain has to get some rest. He captains with such fire that he is always knackered by the final act, and this year, for the first time in an English summer, he has not been given a break by his brittle fingers. He also moved house a week ago, ready for his second child, due in the autumn. Exhaustion does not disable him, as his battling hundred showed, but it does make him slightly manic, over-eager to change the field or the bowling. Dr Fletcher should be ordering him to leave baby Jacob with Granny and head for the nearest spa.
Secondly, England's selection needs to be strictly focused. The Ashes squad, which was to be chosen this week, can be shelved: sport, as Headingley confirmed, punishes anyone who is not living fully in the present. There is a series at stake, and unless Craig White and Marcus Trescothick make instant recoveries, England have a few dilemmas. How to replace the injured Flintoff? Whether to dump Robert Key in favour of someone with experience? What to do with Andy Caddick and Matthew Hoggard, the Headingley chokers-in-chief? How to see off Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh on an Oval surface that could be right up their dusty alley?
Key is a luxury England cannot afford just now: India would far rather bowl at him than at Mark Ramprakash or even Graeme Hick. The bowlers should be retained, because London is not Leeds, but on the day either Hoggard or Caddick may give way to Steve Harmison, whose bounce ruffled the Indians at Trent Bridge. Hussain will surely either use Vaughan more or send for a second specialist spinner – preferably Robert Croft, whom the Indians have never faced.
The loss of Flintoff, the only ever-present since last October, need not be crucial. His misfortune is an opportunity for some lateral thinking, for pulling a rabbit from the hat. That could be a batsman, either Ramprakash, who hit a resplendent hundred on a turning pitch in the last Oval Test and whose return for the Ashes is now widely accepted, or, more laterally, a demolition man, with license to lay into Kumble.
England need to dictate to Kumble – essentially just Derek Underwood with better hair – stick a leg down the pitch and drive him. The prime candidates for that role are Hick and Ali Brown. Hick has made rapid 80s at The Oval against Australia and South Africa (and, in India, a 170 against Kumble). Brown is demolition artist in residence, and he too has a hundred against India. Either man would help fix another problem; without Flintoff, England have no specialist slip-fielder.
More laterally still, the selectors could summon a wicketkeeper so that Alec Stewart can replace Key and make the most of his restored batting form. Stewart, who tend to get runs in great clumps, has yet to make a Test hundred either against India (alone among England's opponents) or on his home patch at The Oval. His replacement behind the stumps? Jack Russell, probably the best keeper in the world, and a man who has got a Test century against India. Go on, Grav, you know you want to.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003
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