Written by Rory Law
After a comfortable win in the first test, England were on cloud nine. India are almost impossible to beat at home, with players who have played massive amounts of cricket on very dry, grippy surfaces and every team that is good enough to challenge them playing on fast, greener surfaces (with the exception of Australia, who don’t have the spin options to topple India either). We had beaten them in 2012 and 2016, so why shouldn’t we do it again? Even though, in fact, in both of those years we had the indomitable Alastair Cook, the aesthetic Ian Bell, and the flamboyant Kevin Pietersen (he only appeared in 2012), this year was different. Joe Root, Ben Stokes, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Jonny Bairstow were the only players in the squad with significant experience. Bairstow came late, Broad and Anderson seldom play together, and Stokes needs a rest every now and again. As is always on the cards for England, they collapsed dismally, losing 3-1 and leaving everyone wondering what happened in that first test. India were lethal, captained by the number two ranked batsman in test cricket, and one of the best in history, and with the best spinner in the world leading the attack. Simply, they were too good, and below I will analyse some key points to take from the series:
The Battle of the Spinners:
It comes as no surprise to any supporter that England’s spin has struggled far more than India’s spin. Anyone who watches county cricket can tell you that 17 out of the 18 counties prepare green, seaming wickets, and the team that didn’t got points deducted for not doing so. It is fortunate that England have no series in the subcontinent any time soon, because their spinners did not bowl well enough. Only one England spinner averaged better than 25 on very spin-conducive surfaces, and that’s Joe Root, who seemed as perplexed as everyone else when he took 5/8 in the first innings of the third test, finding more grip and turn in the wicket than any other England spinner managed. Root is, of course, not a bowler, and his key position in England’s shaky batting lineup and his captaincy are enough on his shoulders. Jack Leach presents a dilemma for England. He is clearly a capable bowler and looked dangerous in every point of the series (except a solitary 10-over spell at Rishabh Pant). However, he didn’t actually pick up wickets that quickly. Despite taking 18 wickets, ten more than second place, he bowled nearly 100 overs more than any other bowler, taking a wicket every 9 overs. Given the amount that it was spinning, this was below expectations. In fairness to Leach, he had a tough job. He was supported in the squad by Dom Bess and Moeen Ali. Both disappointed, and Ali left the bubble to spend time at home after just one game. Bess was really poor, bowling a full toss at least every over in some of his weaker spells, dropping short far too often, and ending with 5 wickets at nearly 40. You wonder if Matt Parkinson might have been a better investment. Bess seems to offer more with the bat than the ball at the moment but at the moment it doesn’t appear that he is enjoying his cricket. This is a shame. He has had some fantastic county seasons, but has been slightly rushed to the international setup to fill a hole, and relentless criticism seems to have really knocked his confidence. England fans need to learn to look after their young talents. Ali played one match, took two four-fors, and looked threatening at time. The problem was his economy, which was 3.7, too high for test cricket with pitches so favourable to him. It was a shame that he left, but of course understandable. Leach therefore had the job to control England’s run rate, with Archer and Stokes not naturally keeping runs down either, as well as take all their wickets. It is a tough task for someone who had played 12 tests before the series.
In complete contrast, India’s bowlers were outstanding, but the spinners led the way. While Leach got 18 wickets, Ravichandran Ashwin took 32, and Axar Patel took 27. Ashwin averaged 14, Axar averaged 10. It is to be expected that Indian spinners would be used to their own pitches, but this was Axar’s debut series. He didn’t even play all the games, with Shahbaz Nadeem preferred in the first test. He bowled in 6 innings, took 4 fifers and looked unplayable as he equalled Dinesh Mongia’s record for most wickets in a debut series by an Indian. Mongia played more tests in his. What is important to remember is that Nadeem and Washington Sundar struggled with the ball, too. This is testament to the quality of Patel and Ashwin, rather than the failings of Leach, Ali and Bess. Sundar took just 2 wickets at 65, including a redundant 1/1 at the end of a typical England collapse, showing that his promising bowling form in Australia hasn’t yet vaulted him to stardom. Nadeem just looked out of his depth against the quality of Root and Stokes and seemed vulnerable to the sweep shot. However, India found their groove, realising that Ashwin’s canny variations, ability to toss the ball up and big off-spinners created the perfect foil for Axar. England played to the turn for both spinners, as is their natural way, and Axar picked up a lot of his wickets with sliders and arm balls, taking a massive number of LBWs. Ashwin picked up most of his wickets in the opposite manner, turning the ball past the bat and trapping batsmen on the crease. It was an exhibition of accurate, biting finger spin, and one that I wonder if any team could have batted against. Another player to notice was Kuldeep Yadav. He bowled well, but wasn’t really needed, in the second test. He has a superb record against England (I am still scarred from his 6/25 in the ODI series in 2018), and his sharp turners would no doubt have caused problems.
England’s problem has been a total lack of exposure to spin. “Ciderabad” has now been banned, and one tour of Sri Lanka, where Lasith Embuldeniya feasted, is not a good measure of success. England’s two best players of spin in this squad, historically, did not impress massively. Joe Root was superb in the first test, of course, but Bairstow was awful. In fairness, Ashwin has done championship seasons, so England batsmen should be accustomed to his carrom balls and lethal accuracy. Simply, England did not play spin well enough, and they will surely look to address this.
Rohit and Pant vs the World:
The batting was most in the spotlight this series, particularly because it was so bad. After the first test, England surpassed 200 runs once, amassing 205 all out thanks to a last wicket stand. India weren’t exactly great, and not many batsmen can come out of the series pleased with their performances. But two players really stood out. Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant, neither of whom boast test cricket as their favourite format, made batting look rather easy at times. When you contrast this with the struggles of their equivalents, Dom Sibley and Ben Foakes, you come to the crux of England’s problem. Man-for-man, the only batting matchup England won was Joe Root over Kohli. That said, Root was actually the series’ leading run scorer. This was fuelled by a majestic 218 in the first test, likely the best test innings batted since Ben Stokes’ Headingley heroics. Outside that, he struggled. Rohit Sharma was immense throughout the series. He made batting look really easy at times, hitting 345 runs in 7 innings. He targeted short bowling, boasting a phenomenal average and strike rate at balls at his body (which Jofra Archer found out the hard way). Sharma made clear after the third test victory, in which it seemed he was batting on a different pitch to everyone else, scoring 91 runs while the next highest was Crawley’s 53 before the pitch deteriorated massively, that it was perfectly manageable, and playing patiently and waiting for the ball does get its rewards. The other shining light was Rishabh Pant, who has surely cemented his place as the best keeper-batsman in the world in light of Quinton de Kock’s recent struggles. Pant is joyously flamboyant and plays his natural game regardless of conditions. The result of this is often spectacular and was perfectly demonstrated by his reverse-scoop shot as he took on James Anderson with the new ball. He then reached his hundred by hitting Ben Stokes for a rather Stokes-esque six over the leg side. His series strike rate was 84.11. His average was 54. In conditions like that, while batting was attritional and difficult, this was just special.
Interestingly, the batting statistics elsewhere belied two more unlikely heroes. While England were struggling, Washington Sundar looked extremely accomplished with the bat. His 96* in the fourth test was desperately unlucky, and he deserved a hundred for navigating anything England threw at him. He was playing second fiddle to that Pant knock, but played beautifully off the back foot, looked steady on the front foot, and knew when to attack and when to defend. He could very easily bat in England’s top 5. Ravichandran Ashwinshowed why he is an excellent number 8, and why he is considered an all-rounder. His hundred in the second time belied his quality. Meanwhile, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara struggled. They didn’t really bat any better than Crawley, Stokes et al. Kohli is obviously excellent, but only managed 172 runs this series as he struggled against off-spin particularly. He managed one fifty, two ducks and his main contribution was his captaincy rather than his batting. Pujara had similar misfortune. His gritty style, which has been so successful in Australia, was his downfall here, as he fell to some unplayable deliveries, potentially wishing he was more expansive when he had the opportunity. Gill is very new to test cricket and looks magnificent. His timing rating is the best that CricViz’s records have ever seen, and his ability against high pace is apparent. However, he struggled against bowling on the stumps, often falling LBW. Rahane is vital to the team for more than just his batting, but he couldn’t get to grips with the pitches either. England had a similar story. Ollie Pope was their third highest scorer in the series and he averaged less than 20. They just couldn’t find an answer to Ashwin and Axar. Crawley tried to overcome it with attack, which worked occasionally but also caused his downfall multiple times, Foakes and Sibley looked to block it out, striking at around 30. This didn’t work either, because they got the inevitable unplayable ball, not making the most of the very sparse opportunities rewarded to them. Bairstow got 3 ducks in four innings. England need a better strategy against spin, and need to wait more carefully for the ball. This will come with experience.
The Rotation Policy and Why it Doesn’t Matter:
It only seems valid for the rotation policy to be under any form of scrutiny if some players didn’t get the chances they deserved. The only player that you could argue could have got more of a go is Lawrence, who batted with real maturity in the final test and actually looked capable of playing spin (likely helped by playing county cricket with Simon Harmer). Given the volatile nature of “bubbles”, it is a seriously taxing environment to play cricket in. Furthermore, India is probably the most lethal place to play in. Ahmedabad saw a return of live crowds, and the noise was booming at times; the fans really get behind the bowlers and batsmen. The temperature is often very high, too, and batting and bowling long spells can be exhausting. Particularly in the case of James Anderson, who is on the later side of 38, tiredness is to be expected.
Moeen Ali threw out the most issues, choosing to go home after the second test. This is where the fans can be more harmful than helpful. Moeen is, of course, perfectly within his rights to be missing his family after spending a lot of time in bubbles, with his preferred format T20 coming into sharp focus in the next week, and this whole year with the IPL and T20 World Cup. We want him at his best to tackle Indian conditions again in a format that suits his skills better. England management didn’t necessarily handle the situation well, but Ali’s departure didn’t really change that much, when you look at the cricket. He would have likely not played in the third test anyway, based off England’s pace-heavy selection, and one player wouldn’t have made much difference in the last one.
Given the challenges of bowling pace in India, it was no bad thing that the bowlers were rotated. Any spell of more than 5 overs is taxing, and Sam Curran’s lack of availability (man of the series last time England played India) was a further blow. Olly Stone impressed in his limited showings, realising that hitting the pitch and trying to reverse-swing the ball was his best weapon. It would have been nice to see him play more, but selections of Broad, Anderson and Archer were all obviously justifiable at the time, despite Broad’s struggles. India could afford to play more consistent selections because it was at home, and this offers much fewer mental struggles, and because they have nowhere near the test schedule that England have in 2021. England need to look after their best players.
“Pick your best keeper”
Wriddiman Saha played the first test against Australia in India’s tour, purely because he is a better keeper than Pant. Pant has dropped catches, easy and difficult, and did so when he was introduced to the side. However, keepers are no longer just keepers. Pant had a superb series, regardless of some wicket-keeping errors, because his ability with the bat trumps some questions about his keeping. Remember, Jonny Bairstow had to grow into his keeping role.
This came into focus with the selection of Ben Foakes as Buttler left the bubble. He is undeniably England’s best wicket-keeper. He has fast hands, gets quick stumpings and is extremely athletic. However, he has struggled for a few years against championship level bowlers, despite a good series against Sri Lanka a few years ago. James Bracey is probably the more recognised batsman at this point, batting 3 for Gloucestershire with an excellent temperament and no obvious weakness. Foakes’ batting ended up being much of a muchness. He batted fine, potentially too slowly, but was constantly put in situations where he had to drag the tail to a score, falling trying to up the ante as he knew he would be left stranded otherwise. He ended up more dangerous with the gloves than most were with the bat, with some really close stumping chances out of very little, some genuinely excellent stumpings, and saved a lot of runs with sharp glovework against some slightly scatter-gun off-spin from Dom Bess. Buttler’s loss was a shame, but was necessary, and Foakes picked up the reins well.
The pitch debate – was it unfair?
Obviously, the pitch was designed to favour India, but only in as much as the fact that Indian players play in Indian conditions week in-week out. Most of the wickets that fell to spin weren’t to the big turners, but to the arm balls and deliveries with some uneven bounce. Both batting sides had to play on the same pitch, and it is well-documented that winning the toss and batting first in India automatically gives you an advantage. It is, of course, easy to criticise the pitches when test matches finish inside 2 days. This feels, to me, a distraction from bad batting. It would be nice to see test matches last longer, but why not make a pitch to your strengths?
It is easy to forget 2018’s test series too. England were at home against India and wrapped up a series victory. The reason was that India struggled desperately against the green seamers they faced, and Jimmy Anderson, Chris Woakes and, most of all, Sam Curran bowled beautifully. India had no answer to the high-quality seam bowling, a quality that is redundant on subcontinent pitches, and despite success from Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami, England won. There was even one game when England scored 396, only to win by an innings and 159 runs. India won one test, which seemed oxymoronic when compared to the rest of the series scores. Remind you of anything?
How do you solve a problem like the openers?
England are yet to find a stable opening pair since the day Andrew Strauss retired from test cricket but Rory Burns and Dom Sibley were beginning to look like a pretty solid bet after a good England summer on pitches where it is devilishly difficult to open. However, none of the openers England have used yet in 2021 have done anything of note. Zak Crawley’s 50 in the third test was by far England’s best effort, but this presented an extremely low bar. That fifty and Sibley’s against Sri Lanka, after they had basically only won, were the only two England have recorded this year, as they all struggled massively against Embuldeniya and Axar particularly. This exposes a serious weakness against flat slow-left-arm bowling. Of course, it is rare that this will be exposed early on in the innings anywhere outside Asia. It isn’t since Pragyan Ojha that I have seen someone play the role that Embuldeniya played, but it is a massive weakness. Burns is yet to cement his place and averages a shade over 30 in his test career. He has shown grit and determination at times but not the ability to convert starts. Crawley hit 267 against Pakistan. They have a good range of bowlers, and he showed prowess against medium pace seam bowling (Abbas), left arm quick (Shaheen) and world-class leg spin (Yasir Shah). He is yet to prove consistency, but that can come. Remember that Kane Williamson and Steve Smith both had slow starts to their test career. Sibley is England’s most gritty batsman at the moment, and has shown an extraordinary amount of resolve in some really crucial innings. He demonstrated weakness down leg and has since corrected that in his stance and technique, making sure he is still as he strikes the ball and keeping his head more level. It would be a crying shame if he was axed, but Burns is the most likely candidate for that.
The main question here is whether England should have selected Keaton Jennings. He is not a test quality opener and was one of the main villains in a really dire few years of test batting from about 2016-18, but he has an excellent record in the subcontinent. Both his test tons have come in Asia, two in just five matches, and he averages 49 against spin, struggling more against pace. Should England start to pick horses for courses? Are they already? They selected their team for the third test for the pitch, incorrectly reading it, with the ball, as seam-friendly conditions, and picked Bairstow, very possibly because he has a good record against spin. He won’t have any opportunities soon, as Haseeb Hameed or Tom Lammonby probably have a better shoo-in for England tests. This, however is irrelevant, as I am confident that Burns, Sibley and Crawley will all play for England this summer.
The stats behind the loss:
This table is a comparison between England and India’s “best” teams throughout the series, maintaining a rough batting order, and shows the series batting averages of the players. This highlights not only a lack of strength in the England lineup, but a lack of depth. Ashwin batted better, statistically, than any of England’s batsmen (with the exception of Joe Root). Of course, the tail statistics aren’t that relevant, and you can’t blame the tail for the shortcomings of the top-order. This is more to illustrate the batting down to 8/9 that India line up with, opposed to 7 for England.
|Zak Crawley||16.75||57.50||Rohit Sharma|
|Jonny Bairstow||16.75||19.83||Shubman Gill|
|Joe Root||46.00||22.16||Cheteshwar Pujara|
|Ollie Pope||19.12||28.66||Virat Kohli|
|Ben Stokes||25.37||18.66||Ajinkya Rahane|
|Dan Lawrence||24.83||54.00||Rishabh Pant|
|Ben Foakes||15.60||90.50||Washington Sundar|
|Jofra Archer||4.00||31.50||Ravichandran Ashwin|
|Jack Leach||8.00||13.75||Axar Patel|
|James Anderson||4.00||1.66||Jasprit Bumrah|
|Olly Stone||0.50||6.50||Ishant Sharma|
It is easy to nit-pick small issues with hindsight, but as far as I see it, England did a lot of things right. Realistically, we were never going to win this series, and 3-1 is a result that at least shows competition against a team that utterly dominate at home. Selection was mostly justifiable, with the exception of misreading that Ahmedabad pitch, and it was extremely difficult for England. Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel took the series away from England just by playing well and it is important to acknowledge that it was just as much India’s excellence as it was England’s lack of excellence, that won them this series. We now move onto the t20 series, which should present a new challenge.