England v India: 3rd Test, Day Two – Same old Song

Let’s start with the good news.  The series is still alive, and barring something supremely improbable, India will win to make it 2-1.  Given the fug of depression about how cricket is being managed in this country, that amounts to a small mercy – a Test series that will at least go to the fourth game with the outcome in the balance.

That’s pretty much it, from an English perspective at least, as this looks nailed on to be a second Test in the series that is hopelessly one sided, although this time in favour of the tourists.  That tight Edgbaston Test seems a long time ago now.

Play might have started late, but there is time added on at the end.  Wickets might have fallen, but there is half an hour to make up for delays.  And yet still, by the time of the close, the required overs were well short.  Yesterday was three overs, today was a quite staggering ten adrift.  For long enough the authorities have shown no interest in making the players complete the minimum of 90 in a day, and in truth a lot of fans aren’t that bothered either, but if they can get away with this without punishment, then this is only going to get worse.

The one advantage England have is that they are extremely good at compressing play into what’s available – certainly losing all ten wickets in a session for the third time in two years demonstrates an uncanny ability to take time out of the game and ensure that it doesn’t matter.

Indeed, a morning session where England rattled through the Indian lower order presaged what was to follow quite well.   It didn’t take a soothsayer to forecast a batting shambles, the only suprising thing was that Cook and Jennings batted really rather well initially to take England to the break unscathed.  The horror show that followed on the other side of lunch was utterly predictable, for all morning the ball had swung, and all morning India struggled against it.  That much was likely to be obvious for there has been endless coverage about how India’s batsmen have difficulty against movement through the air.  What gets less mention is that England’s batsmen do too.  It’s hardly the first time, whether home or abroad in recent times.  The Kookaburra ball may not retain its shine as long as the Duke, but it doesn’t stop England’s top order falling over in a heap on anything but a low flat surface (hello Melbourne).

Hardik Pandya may have taken all the plaudits with a well earned five-for, but it could have been any of them in truth, such was the total command over the England batting line up.  And yet, how many of the dismissals were down to what was excellent bowling?  Most of the wickets were down to poor shots, playing at deliveries they didn’t need to, edging behind ones that needn’t have been played at.  Cook could have been out three times immediately after lunch, driving loosely, being dropped at slip before finally being put out of his misery.  This isn’t even new – he has found problems with this line of attack for a long time now, and occasional big scores on a flat deck don’t counter the increasing evidence that his decline is looking terminal. Nor do repeated claims that he’s been undone by a wonder ball, when his technical shortcomings are making them look far better than they are.  He’s had a few good balls, sure, but a Cook in form would have coped with them.  This blog is constantly accused of being down on Cook, but it isn’t that he ought to be jettisoned, for there is no evidence at all that anyone else would do better – see the rest of England’s batting for an example.  But it would be nice if some balanced coverage noted that he has had, and is having serious difficulties.  Instead what is more likely is that after having spent a long while refusing to accept the obvious, they will pile on to him now suggesting retirement.  It is, after all, exactly what happened before Melbourne, after which it suddenly became all hagiography.

It’s no better elsewhere in the top order, with the exception of Root, who is at least scoring runs much of the time, even if conversion is an issue.  Five catches to the wicketkeeper and three to slip tell its own story of England utterly at sea against the moving ball.  The victory at Lords wasn’t built on a dominant top order any more than England have had that for the last few years, it was all about the all rounders rescuing the team from a position that was only competitive because of how badly the opposition had batted.

This is the position in which England find themselves time and again, and the pretence that a big score from someone like Woakes (however welcome) covers up the flaws means a failure to recognise that being consistently 80-4 is not just part of the problem, it a major problem.  There’s just no sign at all of any learning going on, or more likely, they aren’t capable of taking that next step.  In the hubbub over the selection of first Buttler and then Rashid from outside the county championship, few noted how the effective abolition of first class cricket from the heart of the season made those kind of decisions more likely, and how the concomitant difficulties of the Test team should come as a shock to no one whatever.  If it had been in rosy health in the first place, it wouldn’t have happened.  England have focused on short form cricket, and done so at the expense of Test cricket.  The odd victory here or there doesn’t mean that the trajectory is any less downward, and while the team may have successes, the game of Test cricket itself looks in ever more fragile health, in one of the two countries who really do value it.  At least the supporters do.

That England got as many as they did was largely down to Buttler, who was ironically freed of the requirement to bat like a Test player by the batting meltdown going on around him.  A few lusty blows at least saved the follow on (not that it would have been enforced) and showed what he is good at.

As is invariably the case when a team has a huge lead, India’s batsmen made it look far easier when they got their go.  Equally invariably, the questions over England’s bowlers surfaced, as if it was their fault that England can’t bloody bat.  Sure, there are always things they can do better, and some things that frustrate, but it remains laughable to focus on the bowlers who are consistently having to try and rescue a catastrophic position defending a pathetic total.  England’s bowling is a concern, and England’s bowling post Anderson and Broad is a serious concern, but it’s still not going to make that much difference if the batsmen are shot out repeatedly by anything more than medium pace, on any surface that offers movement or bounce, or any atmospheric conditions that allow the ball to swing.

It’s not new.  It’s not unusual.  It’s every single damn time, unless one of the all rounders has a golden day.  A strategy of hoping the opposition are even more abject with the bat than England can only work some of the time, while the question marks over five day Tests in England are symptomatic of a total inability to stay in the middle for any length of time rather than anything else.

England are getting stuffed.  And the excuses will come out yet again, preferably ignoring the huge body of evidence for how this has been going on for years without any sign or hint that anyone has a clue why.  At some point, it might be mentioned that they aren’t that good, and that they’ve been carried for a few senior players who are all at varying degrees of being near the end, no matter how much some have stuck their heads in the sand and asserted that there are no problems.  England being 2-0 up has led plenty to assert that all is well, in total defiance of what is in front of them.  England’s position today is not an excuse to go on the attack, but it is to cause a reminder than none of this is new, and none of it is unexpected.

We’ve had two days of this match.  India can bat for as long as they like (which would actually be a pleasant surprise if done by anyone this series), and grind England into the dust.  So they should too, for while it might not make riveting viewing, it is the logical requirement for a team in their position.  If they don’t, then this game might not go three days.  And that is undoubtedly the worst part.  This pitch is not a minefield, impossible to bat on.  The ball is hardly moving extravagantly.  These are slightly favourable to the bowlers Test match conditions of the type seen in this country for decades; the inability to cope in any way with them is what is new.