And so, it ended, in the dying moments of the fifth day of the fifth day of the fifth Test, the scoreboard finally confirmed what it thought of India’s performance in England. The verdict was 4-1 in England’s favour, but, it was not a fair reflection of how competitive Virat Kohli’s team had been. It’s a bit pointless to say that it might have been 3-2, or even better, but the scoreline is especially cruel to India’s fast bowlers.
All through the series, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, backed up by Hardik Pandya had England on the hop. Here’s also what the scoreboard and scoreline do not reflect. England had one opener who did not know whether he was coming or going, in Keaton Jennings, another who did not find his best touch till he announced that he was retiring, an under-performing middle-order stocked with batsmen batting outside preferred positions, an all-rounder who had to step away mid-series to face charges in court, a leg-spinner who had not played four-day cricket all season and then did not bat or bowl in one of the Tests and a part-time off-spinner who was recalled after he scored a first-class double-century. Phew.
If this was not an opposition team ripe for the picking, it’s hard to imagine what is. India had the potential to beat this England team in England, and yet they lost 1-4, which is what has left fans deeply frustrated. As if to pour fuel on the fire, Ravi Shastri, the coach, and Virat Kohli, the captain, continuously talked up their team, occasionally being disrespectful to past Indian teams who had toured England and achieved so much more. If the fast bowlers were consistently excellent and Kohli magnificent with the bat, scoring 593 runs, just why does the scoreline read 1-4?
For starters India continued to get their selection wrong. Leaving Cheteshwar Pujara out at the start of the series was a blunder, playing two spinners on a wet Lord’s pitch after a day had been washed out went against all conventional wisdom, not playing two spinners in Southampton was questionable and dumping M Vijay mid-series was just rude. Also, what, if anything is Karun Nair supposed to make of being in England for two months as reserve batsman only to see Hanuma Vihari take the field ahead of him? And what message does this team management decision send to the selectors, who had picked Karun as the reserve batsman in the first place?
The lack of support for Kohli, especially early in the series, was costly, if not fatal. The decision to truncate the tour match ahead of the Tests, and not play more serious, competitive fixtures, has already been questioned. While Kohli might be the kind of player who needs little or no acclimatisation time, his mates are made of more mortal stuff. The likes of Vijay, Pujara, Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane deserved the chance to prepare more properly for the Tests, but the fashion with this Indian set-up is to put practice ahead of matches.
The logic that tour-game fixtures are often played by weak teams on pitches not similar to the Test strips has merit, but clearly, the alternative the Indian team has chosen, is not delivering the desired results. The other problem with not playing old-fashioned three or four-day matches where eleven play eleven, is that it becomes impossible for players to stake a claim for a place in the XI. You can be bowled five times in a net session, but no scoreboard records that, as opposed to working hard to avoid that one ball that sends them back to the dressing-room in a tour match.
India were also hurt by the fact that R Ashwin, after beginning the tour in style, clearly fell away as time wore on. Harbhajan Singh, on commentary, said that Ashwin had told him he was carrying a hip niggle, while the management insisted that Ashwin was fit. In the fourth Test, Ashwin was out-bowled by Moeen, and from the manner in which Ashwin was finishing his action, it was clear that he was far from 100% fit. The effort was there but the body was clearly not executing the instructions the brain was sending. Whose fault is it that an injured Ashwin was played in a game where bowlers’ footmarks and rough was forecast to play a major part in the latter part of the game?
The gains from the last Test were strikingly obvious. KL Rahul finally justifying the faith the team management have in him and Rishabh Pant sticking to his guns even in a crunch situation. Rahul’s runs came from using a more aggressive approach, evident even in the first innings, and Pant will be Pant. But aggression is not a one-size fits all solution.
The forward press, the showing of intent, the fearless self expression work for some players, but to expect everyone to bring that to the crease is setting yourself up for failure. Allowing batsmen to be true to themselves is far more important than trying to play some unified brand of cricket. Shastri had said emphatically that his team were not in England to draw matches.
Of all the utterances before and during the tour, this is perhaps the only occasion where the team kept their word. Which begs the question, is it better to thump your chest and lose four Tests, or stay a little humble, and draw a couple. Is a 2-1 loss better than a 4-1 loss? Most people seem to think so but the team begs to differ and unless that mindset changes, the gap between how the team sees themselves, how the world sees them and what the scoreboard shows will never be bridged.