England have looked outgunned and outplayed by India

Joe Root is gutted after getting out
September 06, 2021

The gas holder still stood one side of the ground and Archbishop Tenison's School to the other, but something surely had changed.

This was the surface on which England's bowlers had laboured for almost 150 overs in India's second innings, after all. It was the surface on which James Anderson, one of the most skilful bowlers the country has ever produced, said he had tried everything to gain some movement but to no avail. It was the surface on which Jasprit Bumrah - who came into the game with a career average of 4.81 - had driven Chris Woakes through extra-cover with a confidence that suggested even batters of modest pretensions had nothing to fear on this wicket.

But now it looked different. Now, as England lost four wickets for six runs, as four of their middle-order contributed seven between them, as India's spinner choked the scoring and India's seamers found late movement, it looked almost unrecognisable. In less than 24 hours, it seemed a pitch transported.

That's nonsense, of course. The truth is, in Bumrah India had a bowler with the pace and skill to extract life from the surface and the ball which was almost completely absent to his England counterparts. His figures of 2-27 do no justice to an outstanding spell of fast bowling which highlighted a key difference between the sides: he was able to hit the pitch harder than anyone in the England side and he was able to gain movement that England could not.

But it wasn't just about Bumrah. In Rohit Sharma, India had the one batter in the match to convert a start into a match-defining score, while in Ravindra Jadeja they had a spinner who could apply pressure and threaten. It is telling that his economy rate was 1.66 per over and his opposite number on the England side, Moeen Ali's, was 4.54. Ultimately, India were just better than England.

There is no disgrace in losing to this India side. Even with Virat Kohli enduring a prolonged run of modest form, even with their long tail, even without R Ashwin, they are a formidable side blessed with the talent and temperament to beat the best. Throughout this series, either with their top-order batting or their seam bowling, they have given England a lesson in playing in their own conditions. While it's true this series could yet be drawn, it is worth remembering that, but for poor weather in Nottingham, the score line in this series would probably be 3-1 at present. Again, India just look the better side.

With that acknowledged, perhaps we have to temper our criticism of England. And maybe they may consider themselves a little unfortunate, too. Perhaps the warmer weather over the last couple of days had helped the playing surface dry out and offer some reverse. Perhaps the footmarks outside the left-hander's off stump had grown, too.

But England had benefited from helpful conditions when they bowled first and reduced India to 127 for 7. You can't have it both ways. They must know they played a part in their own downfall. They might accept that their catching, so poor for so long, is an accident waiting to happen. They might accept their first innings total of 290 was, perhaps, 100 fewer than they could have scored had they taken a more ruthless approach to their batting. And they might accept that, in losing 10 for 110 in their second innings, they showed a fragility that had become wearingly familiar. Joe Root, who has scored six Test centuries this year, won't always be able to bail them out. The rest of his team have one between go them.

England's options for Emirates Old Trafford are not plentiful. Anderson, Woakes and Ollie Robinson looked exhausted long before the end of the India second innings and may all be considered high-risk options for Manchester. While Mark Wood will freshen up the seam attack, Saqib Mahmood and Brydon Carse are the latest options to have been struck by injury and Craig Overton sustained a nasty blow on the elbow which must render him a doubt. Two spinners might be one option, but Sam Curran and Gloucestershire's David Payne could also win call-ups.

It won't make any difference who England pick if they cannot hold their catches, though. Six chances were squandered in this game, with Rohit reprieved on 6 and 31. It's hardly surprising England's seamers look tied: they're effectively required to claim 25 wickets a game. The ECB scouting network holds vast amount of data, we are told. It seems incredible that an ability to field in the slips doesn't appear to have been included in such calculations.

Equally, Jonny Bairstow has now gone 18 Tests (that's 34 innings) and almost three years without a century. In that time, he is averaging 21.40 with a top score of 57. This was his sixth duck in that period. It doesn't say much for the production line of county cricket that he has been able to retain his place.

It must also be recognised that England are without Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Jos Buttler - who is expected to return for the final Test having celebrated the arrival of a daughter - all of whom might be considered first-choice picks. But coping with injuries comes with the territory in sport. And maybe Stokes, in particular, has masked England's deficiencies for too long. Perhaps it will, in the long-run, do them no harm to be exposed.

For England are now facing the prospect of losing two Test series in a home summer for the first time since 1986. Given that they recently lost in India and next face the mother of all challenges in Australia and the possibility of four consecutive series defeats is real. The positions of captains and coaches are bound to come under question. But it's far higher up the food chain, where decisions about scheduling and priorities are made, that questions should really be asked.

That's not the say the management do not have questions to answer. For too long, England have relied on Anderson and Broad to do the bulk of their seam bowling, in the knowledge they will utilise the Dukes ball and the English pitches very well. As a result, there has been little forward planning and almost no acknowledgement of the statistics that suggest that Anderson, in particular, is now struggling to back up performances in the second innings. It sometimes seems that the personalities involved are so powerful, nobody in the team management has the courage to make tough decisions.

In the greater scheme of things, there was a fair bit to celebrate from The Kia Oval. We had a sell-out crowd for five days in succession, after all and, on the last day in particular, when tickets were priced at £20, there were many families and children in attendance. Let's never forget how wonderful it is that, at cricket at least, the supporters of both sides (and it appeared as if there was a pretty even split of India and England supporters) can sit side-by-side for hours without falling out. We have a fantastic sport.

But, in retrospect, it seems naive to have thought England could have pulled off a record run-chase against this India side. Akin to thinking Frank Bruno could beat Mike Tyson after he caught him with that left hook. In general, they have looked outgunned and outplayed. They have it all to do to pull-off a series-levelling victory at Emirates Old Trafford.

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