The sign of a good team is finding a way to win when you don’t necessarily play your best.
India’s day felt at times a long way from their ‘A’ game, but it was just good enough to hold off the heroic efforts of England’s lower order, especially Sam Curran, as they won by seven runs in the final offering of England’s tour.
But, as with the first game of the ODI series, England will certainly feel that the game was there for the taking.
There was a sense of history repeating itself with England winning the toss and deciding to bowl. India’s total of 329 was comparable to their scores batting first in the other two ODIs, but the way they got there, or in this case, failed to go on to a much bigger score, created a real sense of frustration, of an opportunity lost.
There was far more attacking intent at the top of the order, with Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma dominating Curran, Reece Topley and Mark Wood to the tune of 65 for none at the end of the first powerplay and a century stand in 84 balls.
With the introduction of spin though, the game began to change shape. Rohit missed a googly from Adil Rashid and was bowled for 37 and Dhawan mistimed a drive on 67 and chipped an easy return catch to the same bowler.
Kohli has shown some vulnerability at the start of his innings, and this continued today. He tried to step back beyond leg stump to cut a Moeen Ali delivery he probably should have pulled, and the leg stump fell. A score of 103 for none became 121 for three in just three overs.
India’s middle order is a Murderers’ Row of sorts, with ridiculous power and hitting ability, and we were left with the amazing potential of watching them go at England for more than half an innings, a mouthwatering prospect having seen them take over 100 in the last 10 overs of each of the last two ODIs.
England tried to counter with different combinations, and with Wood off the field, they turned to Liam Livingstone. The ball that he bowled to get Rahul out will not grace galleries of the art of the game, nor textbooks. But scorecards don’t have pictures. Rahul will surely have nightmares of how a rank full toss outside leg stump was swept into the disbelieving hands of Ali.
India’s man of the moment, Rishabh Pant, began the counter-attack to the counter-attack and found just as dangerous a partner in Hardik Pandya. Statistics allow you to see part of the picture: 99 in 11 overs. Pant’s 44 balls for his half-century was pedestrian compared to Hardik’s 36.
The degree of difficulty of playing this way cannot be overstated and yet they made it look all too easy. If crowds are lucky enough to be allowed into IPL games please, for your own safety, practise your catching. But England, with wickets, started to strangle the innings. Pant was brilliantly caught by Buttler for 78, and when Hardik was bowled behind his legs off Stokes for 64, the wheels bucked if not completely falling off.
Shardul Thakur was entertaining, but the final 10 overs only went for 46 runs, and somehow India were guilty of not batting out the full 50. All 329s are not the same. It felt that at least 50 runs were left on the field.
But let’s keep things in context. 329 requires a lot of things to go right to chase down. The way that England attack games batting second leads to the two types of performance the previous games gave us. Collapses can come from nowhere and incredible targets are acquired with ease.
The way that Jason Roy began, the first over put thoughts of the unrealized potential of the Indian innings front and centre.
But as quickly as it started – three sweetly-timed fours and a two from the first five balls – so Bhuvneshwar Kumar found the key, unlocking Roy’s gate with a superb inswinger from the sixth that caught him neither forward nor back and his off stump was knocked back.
That’s England’s way – trying to move a car into top gear without using any of the others can get you to top speed, but there can be stalling too. Bairstow went shuffling across his crease and a review couldn’t save him. Stokes started in the vein of his bludgeoning 99 in the previous game until he picked out square leg with a full toss only just low enough to not be a beamer.
ODIs are games of fine margins – the skills on show need to be perfectly executed or calamity awaits. These margins are not always demonstrations of brilliance. The dismissals of Dawid Malan, picking out midwicket in an ocean of space, and Livingstone, appeasing the cricketing gods by getting out to a ball almost as bad as the one he bowled for his wicket, reminded us, that, sometimes, bad balls get good results.
There were four, yes, four dropped catches by India – two of them unforgivable – but also two world-class efforts from Hardik and Kohli that kept wickets falling at regular intervals.
Partnerships between Malan and Livingstone, and Curran and Rashid kept England up with the run rate but the wickets would not go away.
It fell to Sam Curran to be the most unlikely of anchors, coming in at 155 for five, and then proceeding to hit a match high, and almost match-winning 95 with nine boundaries, three smaximums and as many lives as a cat. From 10 overs or more out, Curran, paired with Wood and with only two wickets left, adopted a tactical approach, rejecting singles to pick off the poorer balls for boundaries. With 19 needed off the final two overs, he calculated that he had room for enough big hits to get England home.
But their chances eventually went with a slip in the final over. Looking for two to long-on, Curran slipped at the bowler’s end and Wood, committed to the second run, couldn’t make it back when he realized his partner’s situation. It also left Curran without the strike and although Topley grabbed a single, 12 off two became eight off one after the left-hander could only cream the penultimate ball for four.
Hope may kill you in the end, but there will be solace in making the game competitive until the final over, when hope looked lost 20 overs previously.
A final game and a series that reminds us of the beauty and nuance that exists in this form of the game. Fifty overs each gives scope for individual brilliance, partnerships, changes of momentum, theatre, tragedy, and sometimes comedy. Enough time for both sides to both win and lose the same game.
But maybe, in keeping with the theme of the tour, England found themselves unable to find a winning formula in the most testing of circumstances and India, having dropped one spinner and allowed Krunal Pandya to bowl only four overs, were thankful to their seamers, particularly Kumar, who finished with three for 42 and Thakur, who, despite threatening to fall apart in his final over – the 49th – collected four for 67.