It was only fitting that Mitchell Santner picked up another wicket on the final ball of his spell. He had, after all, tamed the fearsome England batting line-up, to the extent that not even a single boundary could be pinched off his unembellished finger spin. His art is old-school in the modern world of mystery bowlers, deriving its effectiveness from the cleverly done basics, such as imparting revs on the ball, utilizing the depth of the crease, varying speeds and trajectories, mixing up lengths and attacking the stumps.
In the process of returning hugely impressive figures of 2/37, Santner increased the font size of the asterisk attached to England’s 2023 World Cup campaign. So did his supporting crew, with Glenn Phillips rattling the stumps of Moeen Ali and Joe Root after Rachin Ravindra muzzled the burgeoning promise of Harry Brook. The spin-handling bugbear of English batters, especially in the subcontinent, is well documented, and the tournament opener did little to cast away that long-standing aspersion.
In fact, had Ravindra too rolled his arm over with the discipline that Santner and Phillips exhibited to give away just 54 runs in 13 overs between them, England’s performance against spin would’ve been far more discordant to the striking standards they set for themselves. As was the case earlier this year, when England suffered a whitewash at the hands of Bangladesh in the three-match T20I series – recording scores of 156/6,117 all out and 142/6 – besides folding for 196 in the final ODI at Chattogram.
Ahmedabad’s propensity to dish out belters ought to have given England some degree of comfort. At the newly-built stadium Gujarat Titans posted 214/4, the highest-ever total in an IPL final. It is the happy hunting ground for wunderkind Shubman Gill, who averages 87.25 in 10 T20 innings played there in 2023 at a strike-rate of 177.15. Although the scuffed-up condition of the ball towards the death overs in the first innings pointed to a drier surface than usual, England captain Jos Buttler reckoned ‘’It was a good wicket to bat’’ and ‘’margin for error was very less on that pitch’’, evident from the leather hunt the defending champions were subjected to by Ravindra and Devon Conway. The inability to strike when the iron is hot brings up the question how England will cope up with venues that favour spinners, like Delhi and Lucknow.
It didn’t help their cause that Dawid Malan, whose scoring ability off spin is as good as Joe Root, perished cheaply. He represented Prime Doleshwar Club in the Dhaka Premier League for two seasons, in 2013-14 and 2014-15, amassing 902 runs in 24 matches, including a century and six fifties. His familiarity with the raging turners of Bangladesh came in handy when Malan navigated a tricky chase of 210 in Mirpur with an unbeaten 114. His positive match-up with Santner and Ravindra had the potential to allay the middle-phase slowdown that left England on 135/4 at halfway mark, lumbering at 5.4 runs per over.
The presence of two right-handers at the crease in Root and Bairstow was invitation enough for Tom Latham to bowl Santner unchanged for five overs following a rare introduction in the PowerPlay. Bowling speeds running the gamut from 78 to 100kmph, Santner applied the choke with his nagging accuracy, foxing Bairstow who aspired to find the extra cover pocket with his inside-out drive but ended up hitting the ball straighter than intended.
Ben Stokes’ hip-niggle saw the slotting of Harry Brook at No.4, as England acquiesced New Zealand the license to continue probing with their left-arm spin twins. Ravindra wasn’t an able complement to the strangleholding Santner on the day, releasing the pressure with trashy long hops that are a new batter’s favourite delicacy. However, the eventual of the four consecutive drag-downs fetched him Brook’s wicket, by happy chance, with the only point of difference from his previous looseners being the drop in pace to the tune of 11kmph. England batters have grown accustomed to the ball zipping off the deck, so miscues are par for the course when the ball sticks into the surface to lose pace upon pitching, a hallmark of Indian strips featuring black soil as an ingredient.
“When we assessed the surface we discussed that it was slightly more on the slower side, the spinners when they bowled slightly slow it did grip more. When they bowled quicker, it slid on. So that was the assessment we made quite early. We didn’t really think we’d keep them under 300 but that gives credit to our bowlers as to how they performed today,” said Conway after New Zealand romped home by nine wickets thanks to his 273-run stand with Wellington teammate Ravindra, now the Blackcaps’ highest partnership in World Cup history.
Latham’s countermeasure to Moeen Ali’s promotion above Jos Buttler was throwing the ball to off-spinner Glenn Phillips, one of the key fallback options for New Zealand who benched Ish Sodhi. England have been a force to reckon with in the middle overs since the start of 2022, averaging 40.66 while rattling along at 6.15 an over in the second powerplay in that period. Thrown in the deep end, Phillips did way better than just staying afloat. Moeen and Root chose the wrong length to execute the pull and reverse sweep respectively, flummoxed by the zing of the darters uncorked by the part-timer.Half-centurion Joe Root yorked himself while attempting a reverse sweep off Glenn Phillips.
The lack of a launchpad seemed to have muddled up Liam Livingstone’s approach. Walking in at 187-4 with 17 overs to go, the finisher was unsure whether to play his uninhibited natural game resting on the principle of death or glory or temper his instincts to ensure England reach a competitive total. Four dots in the 38th over drew Livingstone into a tame chip as he misread a knuckle ball from Trent Boult, another dismissal suggesting that England batters, for all their IPL experience, may still struggle to adapt to the inherent slowness of Indian tracks.
Yet the greatest harbinger of muscle memory dominating the requisite technique to succeed in the subcontinent was Chris Woakes’ leading edge. Santner flighted the ultimate delivery of his magnificent spell above the eyeline in a bid to secure more reward to show for his precision all through. Used to driving on the rise back at home where the ball seldom grips, Woakes threw his blade at the tempter only to be beaten in flight, rather comprehensively.
“We lacked being a bit clinical with our execution. Some of the dismissals were the right shots but just not quite executed correctly. We’ll keep being positive, we’ll keep playing our way. It shows you have to get good scores on the board if you’re going to defend them on really good wickets,’’ Buttler reflected.
No wonder England will back their aggressive formula despite the underwhelming batting display on a placid pitch. Systemic tendencies can’t be ruled out overnight, but England will have to recalibrate their eager-beaver strokeplay in accordance with the pace and bounce of Indian pitches as much and as soon as possible.
“I think there is big skill in it, there’ll be lots of different wickets we’ll play on around the country. There can be some of the best batting wickets in the world here. Some of them can be a little bit on the slower side, some can spin,” Buttler highlighted with an air of awareness.
“Reading the conditions quickly will be a big part of the game. But we will always try and adapt our style of attacking cricket to whatever surfaces we’re playing on.”