If England spent the day not really trying to win the game, they did so in a manner that left them the only team likely to lose.
On a surface that is exceptionally placid, but beyond criticism – circumstances in the run up to the match meant that producing any kind of pitch amounts to a triumph, – the team tactics appeared to amount to trying to maintain control and little more. Taking wickets certainly didn’t appear to be the aim.
It is hard to understand the decision to start the day with Liam Dawson, and from the less profitable end to boot, unless the intention was simple to try to stifle the Indian batsmen. He’s an honest trier, but not even his most ardent fans would consider him the saviour of English spin bowling. The adage for all eternity in Tests has been to start every session with the best bowlers, the ones most likely to take a wicket, and by no stretch of the imagination has Dawson ever been in that bracket.
Certainly, the surface makes wicket taking difficult – England’s 477, only achieved thanks to the lower order bailing out the team from another sub-par performance, is if anything light on runs. But it’s still a sizeable total, and provided at least some opportunity to exert pressure, of which the best way to achieve it is by trying to take wickets.
Yet it was nearly an hour before Adil Rashid was used, while Ben Stokes was barely bowled all day. It may be he’s carrying an injury, which would excuse it, though there’s been no hint of that.
As a result, Rahul and Patel could gently play themselves in, against an attack focused on damage limitation from the off, even with a lead of nearly 400 at the start of play. By the time Moeen Ali, another made to wait to bowl, came on, the first wicket partnership has heading towards 150.
Light duties for the seamers overall is understandable. The pitch is slow to the point of being turgid, but to use the third of the three spinners rather than either the one who has taken the most wickets, or the one who has been England’s senior spinner for two years, was simply baffling. To then choose the less efficacious end even more so.
If there was a plan, it can only be to attempt to bore the Indian batsmen out and bowl dry. Both Moeen and Rashid were more expensive, in the former case that’s a known issue, in the latter it’s entirely within the usual parameters of a leg spinner. Cook has never managed spinners not called Swann well, and here the same reluctance to concede runs, even if it means taking wickets, was in full force, a negative and all too often entirely self-defeating strategic approach. Perhaps it is not the fact they are spinners who cause this, for Cook has long had a reluctance to trust Steven Finn too, a bowler who even when bowling well can be expensive, but who takes wickets. The lack of trust is apparent to the spectator, it must be blindingly obvious to the players themselves, who will rarely give their best in such circumstances, and in the case of Rashid, means his performances, which have been good, are actually rather impressive.
It may well be that irrespective of what England did, wickets were going to be extremely hard to come by. Given the surface, that’s probably true. But not trying to find out remains the biggest tactical problem with Cook’s style of captaincy.
With an Indian line up intent on accumulation, and an England team apparently content to let them, play simply drifted. It wasn’t a riveting watch, but it was remorseless, and with no attempt to try to change the direction of travel it became apparent fairly early on that this day was going to be a grind.
Further evidence of England being uninterested in trying to force the issue, or try a different approach came from the over rate. In a series dominated by spin, where India have frequently bowled more than the mandated 90 in a day, England failed to meet the requirement, even with the extra half hour.
This blog has long complained about short changing paying spectators and the ICC have shown no inclination to do anything about it, constantly excusing failure to meet obligations, but there are simply no excuses here whatever. Enough is enough.
Lokesh Rahul dominated the day, falling one short of a double century. The manner of his dismissal will rankle, chasing after a wide one from Rashid, which as much as anything emphasises the point about leg spinners; they take wickets, even with bad balls. Indeed, even though England took only four in the day, they all went to the ones most likely to get them, emphasising the peculiarity of the tactics, most notably with the removal from the attack of Stokes and reluctance to bowl him thereafter.
India are now a mere 86 behind, with KK Nair and Murali Vijay well established. Unless England take rapid wickets tomorrow morning, and given both pitch and the approach to bowling, there’s no reason to think they will, then at best they’re going to be facing a deficit. To some extent the size of that doesn’t matter, for with only two days to go, England are going to be batting to save the match, the third innings challenges fully on show. In the final session, there was evidence that it’s now starting to turn, and that means trouble.
From a position where England chose not to try and put India under any pressure, they are now under pressure themselves. When it is time to bat they’ll need to do so for at least a day, irrespective of how India go tomorrow. Losing this series was always likely, and is no disgrace. How they do so is the key.
Cook has had worse days as captain, but today was the day where he just went through the motions. England under him look a side who have given up. And that’s the worst thing of all. Perhaps tomorrow will be different, as there is no reason for England to fail. But the problem is that it will be no surprise if they do. The Cook captaincy era has the smell of death about it.
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