As it turned out, England probably did a little better than some might have expected, but the end result was entirely predictable. To have made the game interesting, another hundred runs or so were needed, and that was would have required something spectacular. Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough on a surface that didn’t especially deteriorate, and with a bowling attack that have at no time looked like skittling India.
There was the odd bright spot, Joe Root batted well, although he once again fell between 50 and 100, a habit he needs to break sooner rather than later if he really is going to be as good as he has threatened to be, while Haseeb Hameed scored an enterprising unbeaten 50 from number 8, batting that low due to a finger so badly broken he is to return home to have an operation and a plate put into the bone. There has been much discussion around the decision of England not to send him for a scan immediately, but to wait. It’s one of those where the logic behind it – to not make it clear to India that it was badly broken in advance of him batting – is open to question in terms of the player’s welfare, but the rationale can be partly understood, and it mattered little in the wider picture. The team medics would have had a pretty good idea how badly it was hurt, and it’s a side issue to the bigger problems England have – except in the sense that he is unquestionably a loss to the team.
What it did explain was the three net sessions yesterday; Hameed attempting to amend his technique to find a way to bat with the injury. He emerges with nothing but credit, for he appeared in little discomfort in the middle and did a fine job in trying to drag England up to a total that with a very fair wind they might have defended. Indeed, he apparently had to be persuaded to return home to have it treated, insisting that he wanted to play the last two Tests. In a series where the collective batting has been little short of dismal much of the time, he’s an unquestioned bright spot – even if some of the praise has gone beyond reasonable and into the hyperbolic.
Aside from that Woakes scored runs, but it was never likely to be enough. Any highly optimistic hopes of an extraordinary win were heightened when Woakes himself dismissed Murali Vijay with seven on the board, but it was plain sailing thereafter, with Pujara’s late dismissal allowing national hero Virat Kohli to come in for the denouement. Parthiv Patel completed a fine comeback match with an unbeaten and rapid fifty.
For India, the series is going swimmingly, only the form of Rahane offering up succour for England. In itself, that is a lesson for those picking on the latest England victim, for Rahane has had a miserable time, but the rest of the team have performed more than well enough. Blaming one player for all the woes of the batting is ridiculous, as many did when Duckett was dropped, for most teams have one player out of form at any given time. It doesn’t for a second mean that changes shouldn’t be made, but it does mean that focusing on one doesn’t excuse the others when the side fails to make runs.
If it is little surprise that India have the superior spin attack, it is more of one that their seamers have consistently outbowled England’s. Only Ben Stokes can be considered to have bowled well, although his five wickets in the first innings comprise all but two of those he has taken in the three Tests to date, so he has hardly been exceptional throughout. Woakes was below par here, though doubtless playing, being dropped, then playing again does little for his consistency, while James Anderson looked entirely innocuous. This may well have something to do with only bowling six balls in the entire match that would have hit the stumps, for nothing reassures a batsman so much as knowing that he only needs to play at the ball when he wants to score runs. Anderson was economical alright, as is often the case when players leave the ball alone most of the time, but did not threaten a wicket. Whether this is a deliberate tactic on his part is impossible to know, but it needs to be addressed urgently. Mistakes are created when the batsman is unsure what to expect, at the moment they know all too well.
Stuart Broad may well return for the next Test, and at the moment it should probably be Anderson who makes way based on this match, though that is unlikely to be how it pans out, and given his record, probably rightly. England need to work out how to take wickets, and Anderson is obviously more than capable. But if he persists in a safe line outside off stump then it’s nothing other than a waste of a seam spot. Harsh indeed, for whatever the criticism that can be levelled here, Anderson is and has been an outstanding bowler for England. Which is exactly the reason for the frustration.
Cook and Bayliss were honest enough to say afterwards that they had misread the pitch, with nothing like the amount of turn on offer late on that they had expected. With all mistakes, it is a matter of whether it could have been foreseen in advance, and few criticised the three spinner approach based on it not turning enough before the match started. The lack of assistance meant that England had one spinner too many, with Batty and Moeen sharing light duties. However, Mumbai is much hotter, and the pitch there expected to be more conducive to spin – it would be a serious mistake for England to replay this match and drop one of them on the basis of what happened here. Conditions may well be different, though whether two or three is best is open to debate. If one does go, it will probably be Batty. His return to Test colours hasn’t been an unqualified success by any stretch, but he is what he’s always been, a solid pro who doesn’t let anyone down.
There is latitude however, simply because England have a six man attack. In itself, this is a good thing, made possible by Stokes and Ali being frontline batsmen and Woakes and Rashid not too far off the all rounder category either, in other words, England aren’t specifically picking six bowlers as such. Rashid has been excellent all series, and has taken two thirds of all the wickets to fall to bowlers. Moeen has been adequate as back up but no more. Rashid is a match winning bowler, Moeen is a useful converted part-timer who has at least done better than either of the other specialist England finger spinners on this tour, and is probably the best England have. But while Rashid has more than contributed his fair share, for the spinners to really have a chance to impact a match, they require runs on the board to defend. Which brings us neatly on to the batsmen.
In England’s two defeats this series, they have failed to reach 300 on any occasion. While last time around they certainly had the worst of the conditions after losing the toss, the same can certainly not be said for Mohali. They won the toss, the pitch was good, and everything was in their favour. The match was lost in the first innings, indeed was lost on the first morning, with a collection of poor shots aiding India in dismissing England for a woefully sub-par 283. From there, even with a spirited fightback on day two, the match had a sense of inevitability about its ultimate conclusion.
It is the failure to be disciplined, and the failure to build partnerships that is the major problem. Jonny Bairstow is top of the batting averages this series, but on each occasion he has come in with a rescue job to do. That he has managed to do so on a couple of occasions is to his credit, but it doesn’t change the course of the game, it merely keeps England in the match. Some batsmen have made a big score and done little of note apart from that – Cook and Moeen in particular. In the latter case, his tendency towards feast or famine is well known, though it’s an especially fine effort this time around, in the former, without him having a strong series England were always going to be in trouble. Cook’s record this series aside from the hundred is not materially worse than anyone else’s, the difference is in how critical his role is to England being competitive, and in the first innings as well. In this match, appearing totally at sea to the spinners was a startling sight – he always has been a fine player of slow bowling.
And yet none of the batting order as constituted in this game are having a terrible time of things. The left handers are struggling against Ashwin, which may cause some cogitation when considering Hameed’s replacement, but all in all they are scoring runs to a reasonable degree. What they are not doing is putting it together at the same time. Cricket is a mental game, and in many ways batting is about mentality more than any other discipline. The problem of not building partnerships is not a new one, the same problem has been apparent over the last couple of years. For whatever reason, England seem unable to consistently build totals, even if the individuals themselves are making scores.
What should be a major worry, with England needing to win both remaining matches to share the series is that no pitch so far has been a raging turner of the type they struggled on in Bangladesh. Indeed, given how the tracks have played, England ought to have been comfortable with them, for India’s groundsmen have been exceptionally fair. It’s a psychological issue rather than a technical one, for apart from the unfortunate Duckett, no player has looked out of their depth on this tour, they merely keep finding often daft or lazy ways to get out. In some ways that’s a good thing, for the claim from Cook that England are not that far away from India is not completely unreasonable, but the margin of defeat in the last two games is so large there’s only a so long before such a claim becomes absurd rather than hopeful, and it’s pushing it now.
There are two spare batsmen on this tour, Duckett and Ballance. It appears neither of them is selectable, which begs the question as to what the point of them staying on the tour is. There is the possibility one of the batsmen from the Lions in the UAE could be called up, with the debate centring around whether that should be an opener. Joe Root could move up to open with Cook for example, and with England so often being 20-2 the appeal of putting the two senior players out at the start and getting them to take responsibility for the innings is clear. If England went down that path, then Sam Billings may be the favoured option to slot into the middle order. If so, at least there would be no concerns about Bairstow hurting himself keeping wicket – there’d be two other players who could take over, quite possibly for the first time in Test history.
Over the three Tests to date, it’s not impossible to see England winning the next match if they get it right, but the trouble is that over the last two games, they’ve not shown that much evidence that they can. India is not an easy place to tour, as the repeated wallopings handed out to visitors have tended to show. England might play well and still lose, such is the challenge in front of them. But it would be nice if they did, they’d then at least have given themselves a chance.