India vs England: Fourth Test, day four

One of the tricks of politics – spin as we call it – is to predict complete catastrophe and then talk up the subsequent normal disaster as being a positive result, better than expected, and evidence that the cause is making progress. A succession of party spin doctors are wheeled out to say the leader is having the desired effect, because they never expected to win anyway, and thus they are very satisfied.

Of course, this is invariably in complete contradiction of everything visible, and the interviewer usually points that out, but it’s a game, a routine to be followed, and at least normally they’ve been clever enough to have set out the predicted calamity in advance. The one group of people thoroughly ignored are all those watching, who roll their eyes at such a transparent fabrication but then they aren’t important anyway, it’s merely a routine to be followed and wilful defiance of the bleeding obvious and living in a fantasy world is considered an entirely normal response in that bizarre world.

Naturally, any statements to the contrary previously are ignored in the hope that anyone watching is so stupid they won’t even realise. This tends not to work.

Now, all of this plays out with the media being the ones making it clear on behalf of the public that this is pure nonsense, but just imagine for a moment that instead, they were to raise the very point of expected flop to the lying bastard…sorry politician offering them a free get out and a nice excuse for failure. And then doing it again. And again. Each time it happens.

England were not expected to win this series, in fact not even the most ardent cheerleaders who usually come up with preposterous predictions of certain victory suggested that. But there’s the realism about what England could have been expected to achieve, and then there’s Agnew claiming England have done well not to lose this winter 7-0. This includes the tour of Bangladesh remember, the team who have never before beaten anyone other than Zimbabwe and the West Indies fourth team.

Now that first series was great, and credit to Bangladesh for how they played. But to attempt to paint the 1-1 draw as being an England triumph is spin doctoring of a level that the West Wing writers would have rejected as unrealistic. Likewise, as this series unfolded England apparently only lost the second Test because they lost the toss, and with a little luck they would bat first in the third and all would be well. And then they did. And got hammered.  Oh and the fourth. And they’re getting hammered.

But then after three matches India really weren’t all that good and England were quite capable of winning and getting back in the series. Which with a fair wind was just about possible, and a reasonable supposition. Except that now it was never possible in the first place and who could ever have suggested such a thing?

Let’s get something clear here, India is a very difficult place to tour, and they’ve not lost at home since England beat them four years ago. So losing this tour is not in itself the problem, for most observers would have thought that was the most likely outcome all along.

But would the England side of four years ago have done better? Almost certainly. They had better spinners, and they had better batsmen. That’s not a lament to a lost side, for time moves on, but it is a recognition that those who said India are good but not unbeatable were right. But to win England would have to play exceptionally well, be led exceptionally well and had their key players perform superbly.

That hasn’t happened.

C’est la vie, for this too is the nature of sport. There’s little point getting too down on an England side who have been outplayed at the key moments in all the matches bar the first one. But it has been remarkable to see an entirely new replacement for the Kubler-Ross model involving some of the fifth estate blaming absolutely everyone possible for wrong reasons at the wrong time. Except one.

Again, to simply point the finger at the captain would be equally wrong, for this is a complex set of circumstances and he has been having a progressively more difficult time of it on the field. But, and this is the constant frustration with his coverage, the endless attempts to excuse the golden boy while lashing out at others is shameful. The cricket press have been supine and by turns spiteful over the last four years. It’s by no means all of them, and of those that do, they seem to be as on the long goodbye as much as Cook now is.  But it remains a grotesque sight, and one that must cause frustration for the more rational objective journalists. They end up guilty by association.

The nub of it is that cricket tragics are well aware that this is a tough tour, they are equally aware that India have better spin bowlers, for the only time they didn’t in recent years was four years ago. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the game also knows that Virat Kohli is a damn fine player, and that he’s anything but alone in that team.

Furthermore, in all team sports the wheels can come off, and on a long tour small margins can become gaping chasms. England really haven’t been completely adrift in this series, they have competed and they have had moments where the opportunity to do something was there. But ultimately the margins of defeat have been large, and they are getting larger. The prospects for the fifth Test are, well let’s just say unpropitious.

But the blame game has another angle to it, the notable whispers about Cook departing as captain. There is an irony that he is now victim of a whispering campaign in the press, for those who objected in the past to the ECB methodology also object now; he may have been a beneficiary in the past, what goes around may come around, but it’s still leaking, and it’s still underhand, and it’s still wrong. Which means that while Cook doesn’t directly get blamed for anything – for that would be to undermine the previous line that he is an outstanding leader who cuddles little lambs – there is an almost pitying theme running through the narrative that he now doesn’t know where to turn when things go wrong.

As if this has only just been noticed.

This morning was an omnishambles, seam bowlers utterly innocuous – and the silence about the way India’s seamers have utterly outbowled England’s is another notable refusal to face the truth – a captain bereft of ideas, catches dropped and a sense of resignation right across the field. Naturally, this is turned into a complaint that the spinners (who suffered from dropped catches, idiotic reviews that subsequently cost wickets and the usual unhelpful field settings) aren’t doing their jobs. As if them not being as good as their counterparts is a major shock.

Adil Rashid in particular continues to be criticised, despite being far and away England’s most successful bowler on the tour. One of a limited number of positive points. It’s not that he can’t do better, it’s that the desire to bully a player in print exceeds the obligation to be objective. It is not the first time it’s happened, and it isn’t going to be the last. The only shock is that it hasn’t happened to Ben Stokes yet.

With such a huge deficit, this match was only going to go one way, and as it turned out England batted reasonably well second time around. When one side is being ground into the dust, it invariably appears the sides are playing on different pitches. And there’s no doubt at all this is now a difficult surface on which to bat, no matter how easy India made it look against a beaten England team. Taken in isolation the approach was a good one, to take some risks, to score some runs and to be positive with footwork and in defence. Root batted well but yet again failed to go on to a really big score, while Bairstow once more did his impression of Horatio on the bridge.

None of it matters. England are gone in this series, and while raging against the dying of the light is meritorious in itself, it doesn’t change anything except to indicate that there are players in this team with the degree of relish for the fight that will serve them well in future years.

A realistic assessment of where they are doesn’t mean focusing on fripperies like Bruce Oxenford making a couple of errors, nor suggesting a game is lost because the current whipping boy dropped a catch and thus the match. It’s an excuse and a pathetic one at that, an attempt to avoid considering the bigger picture, lest the sight of tusks and a trunk be spotted by all and sundry.

Barring the kind of miracle that would genuinely be rather special, India will win the series tomorrow. And they deserve it, for they are a good team, and a very good one at home. There’s no shame in losing to them, there’s not even shame in not playing well. But there is in doing everything possible to avoid facing the facts. The irony is that it may not be the England team on this tour who should be feeling it.

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