Updated: Mar 2, 2021
The Mighty Must Fall
Disclaimer: (throughout this i will be referring to the match as a “game” and not a test match as much as possible as it simply wasn’t a test match)
Since the final hour of the 2nd test match between England and South Africa, during which Ollie Pope danced down the track to Vernon Philander with a new ball in his hand, this England test side has been outstanding. From that point till the end of the summer England lost only one test and truth be told when Jofra Archer was steaming in at the start of the West Indies 2nd innings a victory wasn’t off the cards. Regardless the signs were there for England fans to smile about. Big first innings runs, a whole crop of young talent to choose from, Stokes being the best test cricketer in the world and everything falling into place. The winter looked bright and a chance for this young side to mix it with the best of them. Throughout the period between Newlands and Chennai England registered 4 resounding test series victories over South Africa, the West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and gave us some games to remember that will surely go down as some of the best in recent memory.
More importantly throughout this period everyone in the side delivered. Who can forget Mark Woods South Africa heroics, or Stuart Broad's emphatic summer comeback, or perhaps Jos Buttler finding his feet as a test cricketer is more your forte? Great innings were played with SIbley grinding out one of the most defiant centuries at Old Trafford and Ollie Pope playing the classiest maiden hundred you’ll ever see (for about 6 months and then Crawley stole that mantle). Bowling spells of sheer genius happened, the 2 that spring to mind where Mark Wood at the Wanderers and Stuart Broads 3 wicket burst at Old Trafford.
Full of energy and excitement England showed up to Chennai boasting a young side and off the back of a Joe Root masterclass in Galle. Well we all know what happened (if you don’t here you go https://www.therunoutblog.co.uk/post/it-doesn-t-get-much-better) and all of a sudden India were panicking and the series was alive.
The 2nd test was a disaster masked by cries of foul play by the curator (I do fear many of you may not be aware that the curator of the first wicket of the series was promptly relinquished from his duties following India going 1-0 down). Everything went wrong for England who were dreadful throughout the 4 days and came into much deserved criticism after. But this 3rd game, which Axar Patel and his merry men wrapped up in 2 days, was a whole other tale.
Todorov spoke extensively of his theory of narratology and to be quite frank this test falls perfectly under it. Ahmennabad and it’s 137,000 seater arena started in a state of pure equilibrium. England skittled out for 112 and unable to play the straight one (and for good reason given the horrific nature of the surface and the beauty of Axar Patel) and India battled to the close of play at 99-3 with Rohit Sharma toughing out a good new ball spell from James Anderson and subsequently making England's batting display seem a true embarrassment. Perfectly balanced.
Well whenever there is equilibrium there has to eventually be disequilibrium and Jack Leach, Joe Root and a vicious surface where the sources of mayhem on day 2. Early on the ball was fizzing out of the nuts hand and spitting viciously off the surface; too often the ball was coming through to Ben Foakes at shin high or above his eyeline but this was only another indication that this game was nearing its end. Leach bowled well but a mere 16% of his deliveries were going on to hit the stumps compared to the masterful Axars 31%. In theory England could’ve bowled India out for far far cheaper. This lack of straight bowling was the cause of much misery to Graeme Swann and much delight to Mr Sunny Gavaskar (or so i’m told to be frank Sunny made me turn comms off after the 2nd game). England's captain soon came on and struck with his first ball to the danger man Pant with one that was grooving to a snake charmers funky boogie as it spat off the surface with venom and took the faintest of outside edges. Not long after Englands ‘spin twins had reduced India to a mere 145 all out and by some miracle had clawed themselves into the match and for me this moment of England seeing some hope of a win, was the turning point in the pitch debacle.
Now as much as i would like to stray away from the conversation regarding this surface it is simply unavoidable (if you would like any further thoughts please view my Twitter @therunoutblog1). England up till this point had been the demonstrably worse side; the gap between the two attacks and batting units was so stark that it started building an Iron Man suit. Yet England had somehow dragged their way back into the game on day 2 and had a real threat of winning. This was down to the pitch itself (good bowling of course but as Root himself admitted when he’s getting 5-8 something isn’t right). England had no right to get back into this test match and i do believe that Mark Ramprakash summed it up perfectly on Channel 4 when he said (this isn’t a direct quote) ‘India have made the pitch a lottery and in doing so have taken a huge gamble, the point of a test match is the best team wins over 5 days’. That last part struck a cord deep within my soul and it made me realise that this game was not a test match, this was a ‘a lottery’ and this wasn’t acceptable. The pitch was terrible and how anyone can argue with this fact is simply beyond me. How anyone can say that what we just witnessed over TWO DAYS was suitable for a test match is beyond me. Pre series I had a friend ask me why I said “no one beats India in India'' and my honest reply, before a ball had been bowled, was “because they make a surface to nullify their opposition. They take your weakest point and hone in on it”. Of course every side does this, everyone does this and unless a drastic change is taken they will continue to do so. But to the extent at which India did it? At that point it is purely excessive. There is no fairness to the game, no batsmen can truly succeed and bowlers can succeed by doing the bare minimum and the England spinners where case and point. A common comeback against any of the pitch talk has been reciting the amount of dismissals that fell to the sliding ball (21/30). But the pitch was one of a number of factors that lead to this. Axar Patel bowled beautifully and whilst some where natural variation others were purposely undercut and made to skid on off the surface. On top of this it was well documented before the game the pink ball had an extra 4 layers of lacquer and this absolutely played its part in the ball skidding on. Furthermore the surface being so conducive to spin and extravagant spin at that (on day 2 nonetheless) meant that batting was, in the words of Ramps, “a lottery”, will the ball turn a mile past my edge or will it skid straight on? Who knows. Now of course the English batsmen played dreadfully and they consistently fell whilst playing for the turn (much to the anger of members of GAZZA CC) but this isn’t how test match batting should be in any part of the world the Indian batsmen fell to a similar fate. Rohit played beautifully until he eventually fell to a straight one when trying to sweep Jack Leach. This pitch was atrocious but we’ve all had enough pitch talk right? Ok back to the interesting stuff *checks notes* oh yeah narratology.
Day 2 began with Root and Leach the antagonists dragging England back into the game causing disequilibrium; Todorov states every antagonist has a protagonist to restore balance and Axar Patel was just that. I mentioned Patel before and spoke briefly about him but after that I have realised we could be seeing a true star here. The sunglasses, the swagger and the confidence all were echoed in his numbers and his pitch map. Jofra Archer is often spoken about as having the worlds hardest bouncer to pick with such a discernible change in action; i’ll tell you this for free Patels slider is on a similar level to the speedsters bouncer. Patel ripped the heart and soul out of the England lineup in his first over. Crawley was clean bowled first ball and actually doing the right thing when he played inside the line trying to block out the straight one and instead the ball turned the slightest amount to clip his off stump (although he should of gone forward not back but i have no gripes with this dismissal) that brought Johnny Bairstow to the crease and a chance to make an impact; as i said on twitter “One good session from him (Bairstow) and England could see themselves in a very different position to the one they are in now” well that was not to be as Bairstow produced the worst two ball innings you will ever see from a top order batsmen. Sweeping on that pitch was a sin. Sweeping against Axar Patel? After this next game it will take a miracle for me to ever believe Johnny should put on England whites again. Honesty is something I like to think i promote well on this page and if i’m being honest when Bairstow fell to a shot i could simply not imagine well that was the lowest i’d felt in a while. All the energy had been kicked out of me and from then on well i was just laughing as if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.
In the midst of it all there were fleeting signs of hope for England; Sibleys game against spin has come on leaps and bounds and the partnership between him and Root was promising before it all fell apart for the Warwickshire opener (more of this in my last post “Exams are cancelled and England won’t learn). Stokes threatened to “do a Stokes” but was yet again dismissed by Ashwin and who can blame him left handers stood no chance against the master on this surface. Ollie Pope, once again, seemed lost as the crease but I would still persist with him and I do think he has been rushed back from injury as he does not look comfortable moving his shoulder at any sort of speed. Ashwin claimed his 400th test wicket becoming the 2nd fastest since Murali and staking his claim as the great modern spinner. I won’t discuss the rest of England's batting as well they were tail enders and Ben Foakes has earned the right to be a bit crap.
At the innings interval England had a 49 run lead and let's be honest a win and a loss were both on the table for the 3 lions. “England need early wickets” is never a good sign as it often means they’re miles behind the game but this time round it meant something totally new. Early wickets meant a win was possible; the pitch was that bad.
Of course That didn’t happen. Sharma and Gill made it look easy as they used their feet which to the surprise of no one watching gave them great success. Leach and Root bowled loosely sprinkle on some poor fielding and the game was soon over. Root looked defeated, the Indians had a sense of relief and well everyone else was fairly dejected. A game that had so much promise at the start was over in 5 sessions. More runs had been scored between Nz and Australia in their T20I than in this test match and well that pretty much sums it up. Equilibrium had been restored, everything was balanced again India were back on track to win a series at home.
In years to come this series will be forgotten as another example of ‘English batsmen can’t play spin’ series and the manner in which India won by 10 wickets chasing a measly total of 49 in the 3rd and thrashed England by 300 odd in the 2nd will be conflated. Alas for now we can try and digest what happened.
England ultimately lost the game and rightfully so but I can’t help but feel that in a way India lost as well. They got the right lottery ticket but came close to not having the final number (which quite obviously is 49 in this analogy). Test cricket lost a chance to show itself in all of it’s beauty in good viewing hours in the Uk which surely only benefits everyone? There was no contest between high quality batting and bowling across 5 days in which the best side wins and instead this cauldron became a game of who is luckier? The game was a miserable watch and anyone defending the surface needs to only look at the photo in which the groundsman had to use a dustpan and brush to sweep away chunks of the surface- if you want to tell me this is good enough for a £110 million stadium feel free but i simply will not listen.
Post match only made things worse. The indian skipper came out and said it was a good batting track and Rohit said something along the same lines. Now in a game in which neither side passes 150, is the shortest since 1935 and spin averaged>10 across the game then i would say the pitch wasn’t exactly great for batting despite what they said. Off course pitches like this produce great innings and Rohit yet again showed why he is one of the best players of off spin there’s ever been. The game was over, England were defeated, everything was done the series was gone and unless action is taken by the ICC the next game may as well be a chance to play a few players and get funky with the order.
Consistent themes have sprung up in the post mortem of this test but the most prevalent has been this idea that there can only ever be one truth. “The pitch wasn’t poor India where good”: or the pitch wasn’t poor “England's batting was bad” seems to be two consistent narratives being pushed. Something I think the wider cricket twitter needs to learn is most events aren’t mutually exclusive; there can be more than one truth at a time. England batted badly, India bowled beautifully and that surface was in no way shape or form fit for a deciding test match between two of the best sides in the world. These statements can coexist with one another. A lot of fans seem to want to ignore this possibility or take any criticism of the surface as someone saying India got lucky. Whatever you may think, that is not what I’m saying. India where the better side and England got lucky they had no right in being anywhere near a victory in that game. 5 consecutive sub 200 innings is not good enough from a team who are seriously trying to contend for world number 1.
A year ago England were on top of the world having dominated South Africa ever since the evening session of the 2nd test. England are now a side ,out of ideas, nowhere to go and no one to turn to, and the entirety of India on their back. They want to salvage pride but Kohli and co are just snatching it away at every opportunity. The squad is running thin and it will come as no surprise if Amar Virdi is called up for his test debut in the next game. England are down and out, they rose to the highest heights they’ve seen in years and looked unstoppable but as we all know the higher one climbs the greater they fall and England have just been thrown out of a plane without a parachute.