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A very English improvement

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England_CricketNobody expected anything miraculous from England as soon as they set their foot on Indian soil, marking the beginning of the long tour against the Asian giants. This was not the same England that had defeated India comprehensively at home back in 2012. They were coming into this series on the back of a Test defeat against one of the irregular Test playing nations- Bangladesh. The English batsmen succumbed to the Bangladeshi spinners and there was no chance that they were going to survive against the world-class Indian spin trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra. Even the English bowlers, their spinners in particular, were not deemed good enough to trouble the Indian batsmen on their turf.

But all these were just assumptions made on the basis of their recent performances. England ensured that they didn’t repeat the same mistake again. They defied all odds and criticism to put up a strong show against India in the first Test at Rajkot, which will give them much-needed confidence for the upcoming matches in the tour.

The match at Rajkot started with the two teams having contrasting mentalities. India were high on confidence after thumping the Kiwis comprehensively at home in both Test and ODI series. England were nervous, jittery, low on confidence, yet had the will to do well at any cost.

 

Although the match resulted in a draw, England clearly emerged from the contest with the upper hand as they didn’t just draw, they dominated the No. 1 Test team in the world for the entire match (barring a couple of sessions). The match might have had a different result and flavor, that too in favor of the hosts, if India hadn’t spilled as many as five catches in the first innings. But once they allowed England into the game, the visitors never gave the hosts any chance to make a comeback.

Scoring 500+ in Indian conditions is not a cake-walk for any overseas team. Yet England did so for the second time since 2012. It is the first Test match in India for a lot of the English players, including Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid among others. Few players have played so well as they did in their first Test match in India.

It is worth noting that the Bangladesh tour prior to this series helped England in many ways. Although, it was a disappointing series for them, it prepared England for the tough challenge lying ahead in India. Their trouble against spin was exposed as Bangladesh’s spinners ran amok. Their bowling wasn’t up to the mark most of the times and they had to work hard for each of the Bangladeshi wickets that weren’t thrown away.

 

However, that series served as an eye opener for them. More than learning what they needed to do in Asian Conditions, they learnt more about what not to do. Their torrid time against spin turned out to be the most important lesson that helped them in this Test match against India.

The change in approach was visible. They knew which ball they needed to stride forward to and which ball to play on the back foot. Moreover, Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Alastair Cook and Haseeb Hamid all showed the successful application of sweep shots against the Indian spinners. And when needed, they were not shy to use their feet against the Indian spinners to go for the big ones. All these things, and a good pitch to bat on, rendered the likes of Ashwin, Jadeja and Mishra harmless as they toiled hard to fetch those 9 English wickets.

As far as their bowling is concerned, England don’t have a world class spin attack like India and the pace battery also looked a bit weak in the absence of James Anderson. Yet they stuck to their plans and maintained good line and lengths with a disciplined approach.

The Test match looked like it would head towards a draw as soon as they posted 500+, for they didn’t have the likes of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar this time to fetch those 10 Indian wickets cheaply. And it turned out to be so as India replied strongly with the bat as well. But the visitors didn’t allow the hosts easy runs and stuck to their plan of maintaining tight lines and lengths on a pitch that didn’t have much help for the bowlers. Their fielding was neat and clean after their messy fielding efforts in Bangladesh. Although skipper Alastair Cook missed a catch of Ravichandran Ashwin in the slips, it didn’t cost them much. Otherwise, there was hardly any flaw in their fielding.

 

As the match progressed, Adil Rashid seemed like a different bowler with the pitch offering some help to the spinners from the third day. Moeen Ali also built the pressure from the other end with his accuracy and variations in pace. The result was visible in India’s second innings, as England came very close to an unlikely victory, claiming six Indian wickets. England ticked almost all boxes in the match and it has definitely helped them remain confident and spirited about the tough matches coming ahead.

Things also look brighter for England as their perennial search for an opener to bat with skipper Alastair Cook looks like coming to an end with the rise of Haseeb Hammed. The 19-year old right hander showed tremendous temperament, approach and technique in his maiden Test match, scoring 31 and 82. He won accolades from many greats of the game including former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly, who said that he hasn’t seen a player of Hameed’s age playing spin so well in India.  

Ben stokes looks like a completely different player from what he was six months ago and has improved in leaps and bounds in both batting and bowling. Moeen Ali has also become a mainstay for England both with the bat and ball since making his first appearance for England in 2014.

All in all, the English team certainly seems to have a new vibe and a lot of positivity for the Tests to come.

However, the pitches in the upcoming three Tests won’t be as easy to bat on as Rajkot was, and England will be really tested at those venues. The toss also plays a crucial factor with more wear and tear on the pitch as the game progresses. Scoreboard pressure plays a crucial role on the team batting second, as India experienced after a while, and England is yet to deal with that. The Indian batting is very strong and it is yet to be seen how England respond to a first innings score of 500 runs.

Although, the road ahead is very difficult for the English team, advantage and momentum are both in favor of England going into the second Test at Visakhapatnam.

 

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Prasenjit, a techie by profession and Sports writer by passion, hails from the 'City of Joy'-Kolkat...

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