‘England still very much in this series’ – Cook
His words were incongruous in context with the scorecard, but you knew what Alastair Cook meant when he said his England team will leave Visakhapatnam with their “heads held high”.
While there should never come a day when a defeat this crushing – in terms of runs, India have only beaten England once by a larger margin than the 246 here – is accepted without pain, you knew what Cook meant when he said his side had “a lot of reasons to be encouraged”.
The end came quickly. After admirable defiance on day four, England subsided so quickly that, wicket to wicket, they lost all 10 in their second innings for only 83 runs.
Clearly that isn’t good enough. But there were several unplayable deliveries (it is an overused word, but apt for the balls that dismissed Haseeb Hameed and Zafar Ansari) and several that were hugely demanding. Ben Stokes also received a beautiful delivery; it was no disgrace to be dismissed by it.
Perhaps the margin was a little misleading, too. England had decided to concentrate on crease occupation, inspired by South Africa lasting 143 overs in Delhi a year ago, and reasoned that, if they could survive 150, they would be close to safety; Cook admitted it may have been a mistake. They made little effort to chase their improbable target. True, it didn’t work out and true, had they played more aggressively, the margin might have been smaller. But they might have lost on day four, too.
In truth, by the time England began their second innings, this game was gone and there is no tactic that could have brought it back.
This was a game lost on the first two days. By dropping Virat Kohli on 56 (he scored 248 runs in the game and the margin of victory was 246; you don’t have to be a genius to understand his influence) and losing five wickets before stumps on day two, England sustained injuries from which they could not recover. As well as Stokes and Jonny Bairstow batted on day three, as well as Cook and Hameed batted on day four and as well as England’s bowlers – their seamers, in particular – performed on both, the wound was too deep.
“When you concede 455 and you’re 80 for five, it’s a long way back,” Cook said. “That cost us the game. Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes showed character and if you take Kohli’s runs out of their second innings – obviously you can’t do that – they only made 120. But when you’re behind it’s very hard to recover in these conditions. It’s all about first innings runs. We showed some good skill and fight, though.
“We made a conscious effort to play the way we did in the fourth innings. Of course, when it does not work you feel you could have been more positive. But you make a decision as a captain. We came up a bit short. We fought so hard. I’ve got myself to blame.”
Clearly the toss was important, too. But Cook was careful to honestly acknowledge its influence without hiding behind it as the reason for defeat. He knows that once sides start looking for excuses, they are already beaten.
“We can all agree it was a good toss to win,” he said. “The first day was the best day to bat. It became harder to score.
“On these two wickets, it has been very advantageous to bat first. But it doesn’t guarantee any result. India fought hard and came out with a draw and we weren’t good enough to do it. Those five wickets on day two meant that we weren’t capable of getting close to their first innings score.
“They bowled well. They are good bowlers in these conditions. But in Rajkot we got over 700 runs and here we made them work really hard in the last innings. They are good bowlers, but they are not supermen by any stretch of imagination.”
Chris Woakes looks almost certain to return in Mohali for the injured Stuart Broad. While there can be no complaints about the performance of England’s seamers in Visakhapatnam, England did – for the first time in a while – appear to have something of a tail. The last three batsmen scored 17 between them in the first innings and the last four nine between them in the second. James Anderson recorded England’s first king pair since 1906. It’s not one of the records he will cherish.
There will be more concern about the No. 4 position, though. Ben Duckett never looked likely to score runs here with a first-innings dismissal suggesting at technical deficiencies and a second-innings dismissal suggesting a scrambled mind. Seemingly lacking confidence in his defence – not least because of the repeated manner of his dismissals against offspin – he snatched at a sweep like a drowning man snatching at driftwood. Afterwards Cook referred to a “technical flaw” and seemed to be preparing the ground for a change. It would be a surprise if Duckett played in Mohali.
“The difference from playing in Northampton to playing here is quite stark,” Cook said. “Suddenly every innings is scrutinized. Suddenly this technical flaw – whether it’s a technical flaw or not – people are aware of it and there’s no doubt it affects guys. Ben is a really talented cricketer and I think we’ll see a lot more of him in an England shirt. Whether he plays in Mohali or not, the selectors will have to take a call on that.”
The problem England have is the form of their alternatives. Gary Ballance was dropped after the Dhaka debacle having averaged only 19.90 in the six Tests since he was recalled in July and failed to reach 30 in his last seven innings. He has actually started to bat nicely in the nets and that first-class record (he has an average of 47.38 with 29 centuries) reminds us he is a player of some pedigree. But it would be a surprise if England came back to him just yet.
That leaves only Jos Buttler from a squad that looks a batsman short. Buttler has only had one first-class game in the 12 months since he was dropped. While few would dispute his talent, there is a reason he was dropped and it was, in part, due to his struggles building an innings. He has scored only four first-class centuries – both Woakes and Adil Rashid have double that number – and a first-class batting average of 32.07. He looks most likely to play, though.
Ben Duckett’s tough tour continued with another dismissal to R Ashwin © AFP
Ansari’s place will come under scrutiny, too. He endured a quiet game in Visakhapatnam, taking no wickets and scoring only four runs, but he was clearly not well (he vomited on the outfield at one stage) and suffered a back spasm, too. It remains to be seen if he is England’s best left-arm option (Samit Patel would have offered better batting against spin; Jack Leach better bowling), but it would be harsh to judge him on this showing.
“He’s had a tough three days physically,” Cook said. “We do think he’s got a role to play, but obviously physically we have to make sure he’s all right. It’s tough enough conditions when you’re operating at 100%, so if you’re not, it’s not ideal.”
Broad, though, gained great praise from his captain for his whole-hearted, skilful performance in demanding circumstances. There was no five-wicket haul but, when Broad looks back on this Test, he might reflect on it as one of the displays of which he could be most proud. The tendon injury he sustained on the first day renders it most unlikely he will be fit to play in Mohali.
“To get through like he did was an extraordinary effort,” Cook said. “I think he was in a lot more pain than people know and he showed a hell of a lot of character. It’s probably one of the main reasons why he’s been one of England’s greatest bowlers. When it got really tough, he stood up, he bowled his overs and got on with it.
“We don’t know enough about the injury yet because it’s quite an unusual one, but yes, if he plays in Mohali, he’ll be a big risk.”
Despite the magnitude of defeat, Cook remained relatively upbeat. Partly because of England’s success in coming from behind in 2012 – they lost the first Test in Ahmedabad on that occasion – and partly because his side have, for large periods, competed well, he could envisage a way in which success could be achieved. They ‘just’ have to take every chance and cut out the bad sessions.
“What’s giving me belief is that, over 10 days of cricket, we have competed very well in India in their conditions,” he said. “Yes, we have lost by a big margin. But it was a massive toss to lose and in certain periods of game we played some good cricket.
“We have put their batters under a lot of pressure. Adil Rashid has been excellent in these two games, a real step up for him. Moeen Ali bowled really well and Jimmy Anderson was good on his comeback. So there have been a lot of good things. But we have got to put the whole game together to beat India. If we can get ahead of them in Mohali, then we can put pressure on them.
“Yes, we’ve lost this game, but we’ll hold our heads up high. There are a lot of reasons to be encouraged.”
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo