Amid all the despair about England’s heavy defeat in the Test series in India, it is important to keep some perspective: before the tour started almost everyone I spoke to was predicting a 4-0 defeat and, though it was in the end only a little less one-sided than that, Joe Root’s side avoided a whitewash and managed to pull off one of their best away results in recent years.
India’s record at home is incredible and they came into the series full of confidence after winning in Australia; England had an inexperienced batting lineup, particularly against spin, and badly needed a top-level, ready-to-go second spinner. The series threw up plenty of issues for them, areas they have to work on if they want to move towards being the best in the world, but I don’t think the result was surprising. When you put it in perspective, it was probably about par.
Ravichandran Ashwin, India’s wonderful 34-year-old spinner, was the man of the series but the players who stood out for me were their youngsters, which is a theme that continued from Australia. Washington Sundar, only 21, had played one Test before but averaged 90.50 in his three appearances and took a couple of wickets; the 23-year-old Rishabh Pant kept wicket well and batted excellently; Axar Patel, 27, played the first three Tests of his career and took 27 wickets at an average of 10.59.
These are players who have been brought up in the IPL, which is a different type of cricket but means they are bred to handle pressure, so these moments don’t faze them. This is the culture of Indian cricket and I think it could help them dominate the sport for a while. They have a very balanced side: in the past they didn’t always have the seam bowlers, but now they’ve got Jasprit Bumrah, and when he couldn’t play Mohammed Siraj came in and was outstanding. Then there’s Virat Kohli: they won the series in Australia despite having their captain for only one game and against England he batted poorly, averaging 28.66, but once again they showed they don’t rely on him. This is a great India squad full of options, high on confidence, and they were playing in ideal conditions. Losing to them in India is no disgrace, and no surprise.
There was lots of controversy about the state of the pitches. I don’t think many people, even in India, would disagree that the third Test, which finished in two days, was played on a poor wicket – India made full use of home advantage with that one and took it to an extreme. Overall, though, I don’t think the pitches were a factor in winning or losing the series, particularly given England won three of the four tosses.
Only once did England take advantage of that good fortune, when a double century from Joe Root and good innings from Dom Sibley and Ben Stokes put them in control of the opening Test. On a flat wicket they were OK but as soon as it started to spin the lack of options was obvious. Players were repeatedly getting out bowled or lbw to balls that went straight, they weren’t getting their bat out in front, and they were getting stuck in the danger zone rather than getting really forward or getting really back. Under extreme pressure an inexperienced lineup repeatedly crumbled.
Sometimes we do focus on specific tours rather than the bigger picture
The top order struggled horribly. In eight innings England’s opening partnership posted more than 10 runs only twice and only once did they get as many as 20. Other than the first innings of the series, the opening partnership lasted, on average, 18.6 deliveries, while across the entire series the second wicket lasted 25.4. This meant Root, batting at No 4, was coming in far too early: without a platform, he had an unbearable amount of pressure as he tried to make up for the deficiencies around him. Over the last 18 months or so England have been able to get early runs, but in spinning conditions that did not happen. As a result there is once again doubt about the best lineup, and players who feel they are on the verge of getting dropped will struggle to show their best.
England always have a packed diary, but when push comes to shove there are only two tours – India and Australia – where careers get made. If you can perform there, in the toughest conditions for different reasons, on wickets ideal either for spin or for bounce and seam, you’ve made your name. But sometimes we do focus on specific tours rather than the bigger picture, on results in extreme conditions that we have to face only infrequently.
It will be interesting now to see how England bounce back in the summer, when there are two Tests against New Zealand and then five against India at home, probably with a few green-topped seaming pitches literally to swing things in their favour a little. If they can park this series just gone, realise they won’t have to face this kind of challenge again for a while, get their batters firing again, help Jack Leach, their frontline spinner and the one English player who improved through the series, as he continues to develop, and refocus on the Test journey ahead, there is still a bright future there for the taking.
Now is the time to plan for the next cycle – start, for example, by looking after the seam bowlers, particularly Jofra Archer with his troublesome elbow and the overworked Ben Stokes, because come the Ashes next winter they are going to be vital and their workloads between now and then will have to be very carefully managed. The India series ended with a run of emphatic defeats and individual disappointments but playing these opponents in these conditions is probably the hardest of all cricketing arts to master. England should learn everything they can from this series and then draw a line under it.