Cricket

IND Vs ENG, Test Series Review: England Succumb To India’s Brilliance At Home, Yet Again

Despite kicking off the five-match series with a comeback win, Ben Stokes' England could not withstand India's relentless pressure with ball and bat and lost four Tests in a row against Rohit Sharma's young outfit

AP/Ashwini Bhatia
India celebrate after winning the fifth Test match against England in Dharamshala on Day 3 (March 9, 2024). Photo: AP/Ashwini Bhatia
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Another home series comes to a close, with India winning 4-1 against England after losing the first Test, much like the last time the two teams played here in 2021. And like last time, a series that had promised much and started off with a bang, failed to deliver and ended with a whimper. The fifth and final game was a two-and-a-half-day-long affair at the picturesque HPCA ground in Dharamsala, nestling in the lap of the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range. (More Cricket News)

It was a comprehensive and disappointing innings defeat for England, who looked increasingly outclassed as the series progressed.

There was a time in the age of innocence of cricket, when international sides turned out to play short exhibition games to give paying spectators their money’s worth after a Test match had ended prematurely. But that would be too much to ask for in the present-day scenario of non-stop cricket.

It was a different time, different set of people, different mindsets.

Dharamsala, one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world, is a place where a weary batter can give himself a break at the non-striker’s end from the vice-like grip of a set of world-class spinners scenting blood on a wearing track. Momentarily relieved from the relentless pressure, he can gaze up into the tranquillity of the majestic white peaks that seem to rise from the ground itself.

I remember doing that many years ago, in the much easier circumstances of a Ranji Trophy match against Himachal Pradesh at the adjacent Police Ground, where cricket was played before the present stadium came up. It is a memory I still cherish.

It was sad that England did not bat a little better in this series. Once again, it was a classic case of a team promising much with their initial performances and failing to live up to it as the series progressed. After that wonderful come-from-behind victory in the first Test at Hyderabad, riding a superlative 196 by vice-captain Ollie Pope and an equally impressive 7-fer by debutant Tom Hartley, things went steadily downhill for England.

And the script of their last series here played out all over again with a sickening sense of deja vu, as they plummeted to four defeats in a row, by massive margins.

And in spite of the sporadic brilliance of Ben Duckett, two great knocks by Joe Root as he closed in on 12,000 Test runs, and the attractive consistency of Zak Crawley throughout the series, it was too little, too late.

The brilliance of Bazball had faded to a distant memory.

There was always a feeling that the England innings would disintegrate at the fall of the next wicket. And it did so with appalling frequency as the series progressed. Once again, the England batters just could not handle the pressure exerted by the Indian spinners in home conditions.

So much so that Jasprit Bumrah needed to bowl only 23 overs and Mohammed Siraj just nine in the fifth Test match, in conditions expected to be the best that England would encounter in this series. Almost akin to those at home.

And yet, they surrendered abjectly, crumbling to an innings defeat in well under three days.

After yet another good start by the openers, putting together their fifth 50–run partnership in as many Tests, it was the all-too-familiar story of an England collapse - from 175 for three to 218 all out, Zak Crawley’s elegant 79 notwithstanding.

Comeback man Kuldeep Yadav picked up five wickets on the opening day as a total of six wickets fell in one crazy afternoon session, five of them for just eight runs. Kuldeep was brilliant and had the honour of leading his team out of the ground. He really did well in this series, making the most of his opportunities.

And for all practical purposes, it was all over bar the shouting.

By the end of Day 2, a dispirited England were staring at an innings defeat as India cruised to 400 for the fourth time in five Tests. It was an oft-repeated position that they just did not have the stomach to fight back from. The third morning was just a formality, in spite of the class of Joe Root.

Jonny Bairstow, playing an emotional 100th Test match, hit a frenzied 18-ball 29 in the first innings studded with two sixes, the second one taking him to 6,000 Test runs. He scored an equally free-flowing 39 off 31 balls in the second innings, hitting three sixes off the other 100 Test-match veteran, Ravichandran Ashwin. It was good while it lasted, but like many an England batter’s brief flourish in the series, it didn’t make any difference to the dismal final outcome for England.

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The triumphant Indian team poses with the trophy after winning the five-match Test series 4-1 against England, in Dharamsala on Day 3 (March 9, 2024).
The triumphant Indian team poses with the trophy after winning the five-match Test series 4-1 against England, in Dharamsala on Day 3 (March 9, 2024). Photo: AP/Ashwini Bhatia
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Bairstow fell to Kuldeep for the second time in the match, just when he had begun to look ominous. His Bazball-style aggression counted for little as England collapsed to an abject 113 for 6 in their second innings, hurtling towards an inevitable innings defeat. Ashwin picked up his 36th Test fifer, ending up with nine wickets in his milestone match.

Earlier on Day 3, Jimmy Anderson had opened the proceedings with an equally monumental 700th Test wicket, as he trapped Kuldeep Yadav LBW. That brought him within striking distance of Shane Warne’s 708 Test wickets, a tally second only to the great Muttiah Muralitharan. Anderson is now well on his way to becoming the second highest wicket-taker in Test cricket in the near future. What a fantastic career it has been!

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At the other end, in an impressive show of fight, the young Shoaib Bashir picked up his second consecutive five-wicket haul, although it came at a high personal cost of 173 runs at the receiving end of yet another dominant Indian batting display. Shoaib has visibly improved over the four Test matches that he has played here and looks to have a bright future ahead, but it remains to be seen what kind of opportunities come his way after this, once this side returns to England.

It would be good for Test cricket if he were to attain the heights of Ashwin, who has ebbed and flowed onto 100 Test matches since his Test debut, many moons ago.

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When you see a young player taking baby steps in Test cricket and tasting his first successes, it puts in true perspective, the value of the career of the grizzled veteran who has played 100 Tests.

We have had three such instances in the present series, two in the final match itself, and it may suddenly seem a little passe in this day of round-the-year cricket, with a plethora of records being broken in almost every match.

In actual fact, it is anything but that. It remains a huge personal achievement gained over a lifetime of excellence that deserves to be honoured as such. Like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s Everest ascent, Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile and Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, the first cricketer to have breached this seemingly tall barrier of human endeavour was Colin Cowdrey in 1968, in an Ashes game against Australia. Cowdrey duly celebrated it by getting a hundred in his hundredth Test match.

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Root got a double century against India in his 100th Test and Ricky Ponting got two of them in his landmark game. Ashwin nearly became the first bowler to pick up a 10-fer in his 100th Test, missing out narrowly by one wicket.

But more than the veterans, this series has been all about the arrival of the next generation of Indian Test batters and an exciting new wicket-keeping talent who could easily hold down a pure batting spot of his own.

These young players are now so unfazed by the big stage of Test cricket that it almost feels as if they have been playing at this level forever. They seem so confident, so at home, so sure of what they want to do, it’s truly amazing. Most of them have come through a clear-cut pathway of career progression through Ranji Trophy and India A teams, onto Test cricket.

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Not to mention the precious international exposure of the Indian Premier League, where they routinely rub shoulders and share dressing rooms with the greatest in the world. And where they often routinely outshine established international stars who are legends of the sport. It is not surprising, therefore that a young Shubman Gill or Yashasvi Jaiswal should step down the track to a James Anderson on the cusp of 700 Test wickets, and smack him back over his head, deep into the stands.

And stare him down afterwards.

Devdutt Padikkal, symbolizing this generation of fearless young players, reached his 50 on Test debut with a towering six, without a care in the world. Like Jaiswal, Sarfaraz and Jurel, he looked so much at home on this biggest of all stages. And like many great left-handers before him, so elegant through the off side.

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There will be plenty of times when it won’t be quite so easy. They will struggle against swing and sharp movement off the seam in English conditions, where Anderson will be a completely different kettle of fish. But this bold young brigade may well find a way to deal with that as well when the time comes, leaving historical stereotypes behind.

Because the most important thing is their belief in themselves.

With yet another IPL season looming in a couple of weeks, waiting to take over the national consciousness and perhaps that of the cricketing world itself to a large extent, there will be plenty of opportunities for this fresh crop of young cricketers to come through, with a T20 World Cup just round the corner. And other than this band of brilliant young players who made impressive debuts in this series, there are others waiting on the fringes, bold, confident, literally beating the door down, waiting to be given an opportunity.

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The whole cricketing atmosphere of the country is all set to erupt in a frenzy of high-octane action yet again, so exciting for everyone who is a part of it.

But it still begs the question, how much cricket is too much for the fans? Will the broadcast companies kill the golden goose one day by showcasing too much of it on their channels?

It’s a point that is worth pondering over, at every level.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author. The author is a veteran Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force, who has played Ranji Trophy for Services.

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