India vs England; Fifth Test, Day Four

If the third day was chastening, bordering on disastrous, then day four was humiliation.  About the only thing that went in England’s favour all day was that they didn’t lose any wickets in the short session following India’s perhaps belated declaration.

Inevitably when a side receives a flogging of the kind that England did today, there will be a search for someone to blame.  Most likely, it will be the spin bowlers who receive most of it from the media, and of those, it will probably be Adil Rashid who gets it most of all.  The word for this is “scapegoating”, though it’s not the first time the most successful player in his discipline has been blamed for all the ills of a disastrous tour.  By way of illustration, in the last Test Rashid dropped a catch. It happens, it’s in the nature of the game.  As is the possibility that the drop may prove expensive.  But the response from some was to single out that spill as the reason for defeat – because that dropped catch “cost” 150 runs.  In the first place this is of course complete nonsense – if a team fails to create another opportunity then the fault is collective; in the second, Cook’s drop of Karun Nair has cost in the region of 270 runs so by the same method, and given England’s deficit, it must be entirely Cook’s fault.  Preposterous.  And fortunately for him, no one is making that case.

But here’s the point.  All those journalists who mentioned the cost of Rashid’s drop, but failed to do so for Cook’s are pushing an agenda.  There is no other reason and no justification whatever.  It would be grossly unfair on Cook to throw the consequences of a dropped catch on him, which is why this place won’t do it.  But it was and is equally grossly unfair to have done so to Rashid.  Those that did once when it suited but not the other time are a disgrace to their profession.  It is nothing but bullying, and many will wonder why they are doing it.

Cook does bear some responsibility for the debacle, but not so much for the fourth day’s play, where the wheels falling off is something that tends to happen to most sides facing such a battering and to far better captains than Cook.  It is as miserable an experience as can happen on the cricket field.  It was more for the third day, where the approach was one of containment and entirely of containment.  Again, this is not a matter of assuming different actions would have caused entirely different outcomes, for the flatness of the surface meant it was always going to be a difficult task to restrict India.  But by prizing economy over penetration England thoroughly played into Indian hands and made the fourth day even more painful.

Liam Dawson has bowled nicely.  He’s done reasonably well.  He’s certainly maintained a degree of control when looked at on an over by over basis.  But when the opposition rack up a record score of 759 against you, one has to ask what value that control brings.  Bowling a foot outside off stump routinely also offers control, but there’s a reason why it’s not a very popular tactic amongst the better teams.  It’s not to belittle someone who toiled manfully all day, but it is to question what the priority is and should be.

Likewise, it’s unlikely Moeen or Rashid will look back on this innings with fondness, but neither of them bowled especially poorly – though not well, that’s for sure.  The surface made spin bowling unprofitable to begin with – and it seems many have forgotten that Ravi Ashwin, the Ravi Ashwin England have had all kinds of problems against, went for 151 in the first innings for a single wicket. The suggestion that ANY of the England spinners should be taken to task for not vastly improving on that is idiotic.

Some years ago, when Shane Warne retired, Australia went through spinner after spinner in a vain attempt to replicate one of the game’s great bowlers.  Each one who failed to measure up to the impossible was summarily discarded, before eventually press, public and selectors woke up to reality and cut their cloth according to what they had.  Nathan Lyon has been in place ever since; he’s nothing exceptional, nothing special, but he is the best they have and a decent enough performer – and for that matter better than anything England have.

That doesn’t mean England should just give up on their spin options, but it does mean railing at the hideous truth is completely pointless.  Whoever had been selected, the outcome would have been fairly similar.  This is why beating up on the one bowler who has shown an ability to take wickets is more than just unreasonable, it is stupid.  When England won here four years ago, they had Graeme Swann, the best England spin bowler in 40 years.  They no longer have him, and that’s just way it is.  But would Rashid have performed better if Swann had been his partner?  Almost certainly.

One of the questions asked of this site is why we get so angry with sections of the media.  This is the reason why.  Rather than a proper analysis of the whole of the England set up – and yes, that does include the spin bowlers – they single out someone to blame who must never be the captain.  It is fundamentally dishonest.  No one believes Cook is responsible for the whole shambles, but balance does include talking about him too, and not excusing every error, every issue with the strategy, and fixating on players who for all their flaws happen to be the best we have, and without whom the England team will not be an improved one.

Ten years ago Ashley Giles was the England slow bowler of choice.  No one thought he was outstanding, no one thought he matched up to the spinners other teams possessed.  But the cupboard was bare and thus an awareness that the role he performed was done as well as could be hoped for took hold.  The recognition of that dearth of options was considered, certainly, but that is a different question, and one that could be talked about now as well.  George Dobell is one of few who have raised the wider issue.

India did delay their declaration until shortly before the close, seemingly primarily to allow Nair to reach his triple century.  Naturally, this did attract some comment, not the least preposterous of which was how much stick Cook would have got for delaying one for someone to get a triple century.  It perhaps was a little favourable towards an individual landmark than the team position, but at 3-0 and with still an outstanding chance of going 4-0 up, it’s rather easier to justify than in normal circumstances.  In either instance, whether it be Cook or Kohli, such criticism is not reasonable unless it actually costs a decisive win.  In any case, that Mike Atherton still receives criticism 20 years on for declaring on Graeme Hick on 98 demonstrates that all too often people want it all ways.  England have a minimum of 90 overs to bat tomorrow, and if they survive that eight wickets down, it’s unlikely too many Indian fans will be losing sleep over it given the series scoreline.

There is naturally some anger about today, but this hasn’t appeared out of the blue.  The problems have been there and growing all series, and attacking the bowlers rather overlooks that England have only managed to score more than Karun Nair three times as a collective all series.  Whether it be batting, bowling, fielding or captaincy, England have been second best – except perhaps ironically in the last instance, given Kohli’s curious approach.  But for the same reason some of Cook’s poor leadership has been excused when England have been winning (indeed, not just excused, wilfully overlooked or even perversely praised), so Kohli will get a free pass this time.  And to some extent, that is fair enough, for criticism of Cook was swatted contemptuously aside all too often as long as England came out of the game on the right side, so why hold Kohli to different standards?  A recognition that with the win the captain’s own leadership needs to develop is a different thing entirely.

No, the abiding feeling from today, and specifically today, is sympathy.  This was awful, and the England players looked like they felt it with every boundary, every misfield.  Any player is familiar with the feelings of complete powerlessness it creates, the desire simply to get off the field and away from the misery.  When it goes this wrong, everything goes wrong, and the captain is at his wits end.  The anger though, is better directed towards the build up to it, to the targeting of individual players by those who ought to know better (yes Nasser Hussain, you should know better), to the excusing of others to the point that they end up receiving more criticism from those outside cricket than is necessarily fair, in direct reaction to the whitewashing of the chosen one.

The pitch may be benign, but it is the fifth day, and there will be some assistance for the bowlers.  England are playing not so much for pride, but for their dignity, for a batting calamity will rightly evoke memories of the last away Ashes series.  They are certainly capable of batting out the day and claiming a draw, which would be a (very) minor triumph if they manage it.  To do so, they will probably need Cook to bat through much of it, as is often the feeling in such circumstances.  Curiously, he doesn’t have as great record in rearguards as might be expected, although his valiant attempt to stave off defeat four years ago in India remains one of his greatest innings – and not truly in vain given what happened subsequently.  Yet, he remains the prize wicket in these situations, and whatever people may think of him as captain, a skipper’s innings tomorrow would be welcome, and perhaps for himself most of all.

Should they manage it, it must not be portrayed as any kind of vindication.  England are now being hammered by India, and there are a whole series of reasons behind that – not the least of which is that in these conditions, India are simply much better.  But gathering the shreds of the self-respect is no reason for approval, nor is revisionism claiming a 3-0 defeat represents as good a result as England could have wished for.  The trouble is, it’s actually hard to see England managing even that.

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