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HALTING ENGLAND’S JUGGERNAUT BEYOND INDIA

India must accept that apart from being smacked by the strongest batting pair in Test cricket, the second half of their effort was very poor.

England India 5th Test
Centuries to Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow sealed a historical chase and levelled the series 2-2. (Image: Twitter)

This may be the toughest defeat to digest for India, who have now lost their last three overseas Test matches in a row. In South Africa, India took a 1-0 lead but then fell apart to lose the next two and the series. After four months of white-ball cricket they returned to England to contest the rescheduled fifth Test of the 2021 series and encountered a new, steelier and bolder England playing a level of cricket that is intimidating.

India lost the toss, then early wickets, but rebounded via a 222-run partnership between Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja to make 416. After establishing a lead of 132, India were in a position to set England 400 – it probably would not have mattered had they set 450, in the end – but collapsed in a familiar montage of sloppiness. Losing seven wickets for 120 runs on the fourth day was a platform squandered and where India truly let this match slip.

A team set a record chase of 378 with over a day to spare, went on to knock off the runs – the same reason their captain chose to field – and win with seven wickets and more than two sessions remaining. That is remarkable. Unheard of, frankly. The new England. Bazball. Add your own terminology if you like.

History and conventional wisdom dictates that teams are supposed to struggle when chasing targets of 378 in the fourth innings of a Test match. Not this England team, who tore into some wayward and ineffective pace bowling with the glee of famished roosters tearing at bird feed. A century stand from Alex Lees and Zak Crawley, that aforementioned collapse and then the defining partnership of the series between Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. At stumps on day four England were 259/3 after 57 overs and you wondered what the heck this was all about.

Root Bairstow Partnership
Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow revived England after they had lost three wickets for two runs in 16 deliveries. (Image: Getty)

Sure, this team had made quick work of chase of 279, 299 and 296 in three successive Test matches against New Zealand, but this was India, boasting of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami and Jadeja. It needed something historical, and that is what this England delivered.

The openers Lees and Crawley, after struggling most of the summer, smacked 56 and 46 respectively to give England’s chase a sensational start. Post tea on day four, three wickets came India’s way in 16 deliveries from their stand-in skipper Bumrah, but thereon Root (142*) and  Bairstow (114*) shoved the visitors out of the contest with an astounding alliance of 269 in 52.3 overs that sealed a record chase and drew the series 2-2.

Credit where it is due. This is a transformed England side, one batting with a level of confidence in the face of adversity that has seldom been seen by any team other than the Australian one under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting in the last 20 years. You can lose wickets and bowl poor lines, but when you see Root and Bairstow in such devastatingly strong form you must sit back and acknowledge the machinery of what has been termed Bazball. A team that had sunk to a low in Tests not seen since the late 90s has been invigorated in such a dazzling manner since New Zealand icon Brendon McCullum was named coach and Ben Stokes was appointed captain, that it truly is shaping up as the cricketing story of the year. Salute.

But India have to face up to the fact that apart from being smacked by the strongest batting pair in Test cricket going around, the second half of their collective efforts in this match were poor. For starters, you cannot excuse India’s second innings. Shubman Gill, Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer all underwhelmed for the second time in the match. Virat Kohli’s slump hit a new low, he dropped a catch and instigated Bairstow needlessly to spur Test cricket’s leading run-getter to his first hundred of the match. Shardul Thakur failed as the second allrounder. Cheteshwar Pujara bedded down well on day three to score his 33rd Test fifty but fell on the fourth morning when he cut a short and wide ball to point.

This left England to get the wickets of the first-innings centurions Pant and Jadeja. Their spinners, the left-arm spinner Jack Leach and the part-timer Root, denied Pant room to heave and it was not long before the batsman opted to reverse-sweep. The result was an edge to slip. India’s tail folded fast and Jadeja was ninth out.

Then there was the manner in which India’s bowlers and fielders made it so ridiculously easy for England to chase 378. The pitch was flat. There was no overhead assistance. Root and Bairstow were fuelled by sheer self-belief. It was surprising, still, to see India’s otherwise excellently coherent bowling attack fall apart in the face of the Root-Bairstow spectacle.

Picking four pace bowlers worked very well for India in England last year. In this rescheduled Test, the case was different largely due to how proactively England’s batsmen were. There were distinct shades of the South Africa tour in which India’s bowlers struggled to bowl out the opposition. Did inexperience as a captain factor in? It is not straightforward to say, because after all this was Bumrah’s 30th Test match and he has led this team’s bowling attack superbly for four years and counting. He has five-wicket hauls in all but one overseas country he has played in and is known for his cricketing acumen. He had Kohli to turn to, and the likes of Pujara (95 Tests) and Pant if he needed further assistance or advice.

Mohammed Siraj
Mohammed Siraj had figures of 0-98 from 15 overs during England’s record chase. (Image: Twitter)

Bumrah can be excused to an extent given that he did the bulk of the bowling and took six wickets, but his ineffectiveness as the pitch flattened out was alarming. Shami was luckless, yes, but it will rankle how during the chase he bowled without that necessary captivating sense of controlled aggression. He also speared more deliveries down the pads than any of his team-mates. Mohammed Siraj’s loss of cut and seam has been alarming, and do not read much into the four wickets he took in England’s first innings. Shardul Thakur had match figures of 18-0-113-1. Substandard no matter how you view it.

Jadeja was ineffective on that Edgbaston track. He bowled two overs when England batted the first time and when they set about chasing 378 he quickly resorted to a negative line, operating from over the stumps and repeatedly landing the ball outside the right-handers’ legstump. There was a rough patch and Jadeja clearly wanted to exploit it, but his bowling just lacked bite. Root and Bairstow left well alone until set and then Root, in particular, began sweeping and paddling free runs off Jadeja. Would R Ashwin have made a bigger impact on day five? On skill, yes, but with nothing in the track and the in-form pair of Root and Bairstow hell bent on pulling off a world record, it is anyone’s guess as to how many wickets he would have procured.

The fundamental lesson from this astonishing loss should involve examining and imitating how England reacted when put under pressure, and why India’s familiar problems surfaced. No doubt the absence of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul as openers told, but it cannot be an excuse for this defeat. There was skill in this batting lineup, but only three batsmen stood up.

The fulcrum of this Indian squad has been together for a while and knows what it takes to win. The 2020-21 tour of Australia and last summer’s contest versus England is proof. The goal from here, for Rohit and Bumrah and Rahul Dravid and the entire coaching staff has to be to keep improving. There is no other way. If India need inspiration, all they need to do is turn to England who had won just one of their previous 17 Tests heading into the start of their summer under Stokes and McCullum.

Written by Jamie Alter

Sports writer, author, actor, anchor, digital content creator and TedX Talks speaker.

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