As the dust settles on the end of the India v England Test series, there will be plenty of time for bloodletting and handwringing as to the make-up of the England team to face New Zealand in the first of the summer Tests.
Series that sometime seem one-sided often hang on a few moments and decisions. I wanted to look back and consider just a few of the turning points on which this series played out.
1. England win the toss in Chennai – I think you’re going to be told by lots of people that winning the first Test was as easy as winning the toss. Absolute rubbish. Of course it helped, but the toss doesn’t put 578 runs on the board. England earned those runs, with the star of the show being Root’s 218. A blended attack of seam and spin laid to rest ghosts of 700+ totals conceded in previous tours and kept the pressure on. The game, and early series momentum was wrested from the hosts with what was considered one of the best England away wins in history. If there was a blueprint to win, this was it.
2. England lose the toss in Chennai – Between the first and second tests, there were lots of conversations given over to pitch conditions. We ended up knowing far too much about the difference between red soil and black soil for the preparations for the second Test. This pitch was going to be different. Even though the pitch was going to favour the home team, the toss seemed again all-important. Joe Root called, and with the flip of a coin, so the momentum of the series began to slip away from England.
3. Rohit Sharma’s 161 – Whatever you think of the pitch – words such as beach, abomination, unfit were all used – it doesn’t explain what Rohit did on day 1. At the end of the first session, he’d reached 80 and hit 10 boundaries. The ball was spinning from the off, enough to take the middle stump of a disbelieving Kohli, but the ball seemingly spun right into the middle of Rohit’s bat. It seemed incredible that he got out, such was his level of comfort. Sometimes to appreciate greatness, you need to see it in its wider context: 49 per cent of the innings runs. England only exceeded Rohit’s first innings effort as a team once, and only by three runs. The speed with which he scored his runs meant that the Indian attack had the luxury of time to really put the English batsmen under pressure. A luxury they didn’t need.
4. The debut of Axar Patel – from an Indian point of view, this was one match too late, an injury giving lesser spinning options in Shabhaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar for England to take advantage of in the first game. Ashwin’s transcendent class is unquestioned, but great bowlers are made greater by their bowling partners. Patel’s first job was to stem the runs from the bat of Joe Root, seemingly in the middle of a rich seam.. After Root had made six, he tried to sweep Patel against the spin, got a top edge and was caught at backward square. His confidence swelled with another wicket in the innings, and went stratospheric with five in the second. Just one reason to look back on this series to say that maybe, just maybe, we watched the beginning of something special – but we’ll revisit this theme later.
5. England’s team selection – There’s a principle called Occam’s razor, which says that the simplest solution is often the right one. The brains trust within the England camp seemed to abandon this when it came to each starting XI after the first test. Dom Bess was sacrificed at the altar of his wickets not being good enough, so Moeen Ali came in. Ali was more expensive than Bess, especially in the first innings, as he relearnt cricket after a year’s inactivity and suffering from Covid. What made the decision more perplexing came after the game when Moeen went home for scheduled rest. Why disrupt the team for one Test? How would Bess fare after essentially being ditched by the selectors? When the third test came about, India went with three spinners for the day/night game, whereas England went with the extra seamer, with Root having to use himself as the second spinner.
6. Two days of carnage – There is little analysis you can gain from a sample size of 15 day/night games, but common thought is bat first. England won the toss, followed the thinking and then everything went bonkers. It didn’t seam and swing under the lights, it just turned more than the second Test. Crawley showed more poise than the entire team, scoring 53, but Patel and Ashwin spun them out for 112. In Chennai, Rohit and Ashwin had made batting look easy on a mischievous pitch, but here, batting was seemingly impossible for both sides. India were three down by the end of day 1 and folded the next morning as Leach and out of nowhere, Joe Root matched the Indian spinning fraternity wicket for wicket. With all to play for with a deficit of only 33, India didn’t bowl a single over of seam in the second innings as England lost their collective bottle and fight. Thirty overs was all it took for them to be dismissed for 81. In one day, we saw the completion of three innings as the 48 runs were knocked off by Rohit and Gill. I think the backlash from this may mean that it will be a while before another day/night game involves India.
7. The blossoming of a superstar – I said earlier that it’s amazing to be a witness to the start of something. We may not know it at the moment, but in times to come, we can say that we witnessed it. The whole series was a massive coming out party for Rishabh Pant in India. Building on the Gabba miracle chase, he was a one-man wrecking crew each time he came out to bat. Jack Leach almost needed therapy after the first innings of the first Test, and by the time he reached his century in the fourth, no one knew where to bowl or where to field. In one session of the fourth Test, he took a precarious situation and turned into a match-winning one. To use a golf quote from Bobby Jones about Jack Nicklaus, he was playing a game with which I am unfamiliar. Ask Jimmy Anderson how many times he’s been reverse ramp-swept with the new ball in hand? More than handy behind the stumps as well, Pant can become India’s man of all seasons and formats.