England on the Ropes
By the end of the second day at Ahmedabad, England seem to have walked straight into the trap laid by India, without making any significant effort to side step it.
Sounds like unfair criticism on the face of it, but let us examine the evidence so far.
England lost the toss and it was a crucial toss. It generally is in any test match, in any conditions. But consider the way England have gone about their business aside from that.
1. Team selection was in line with the standard model preferred by England, going in with four specialist bowlers, three seamers and one specialist spinner. Statistics and norm, not conditions, dictated the wisdom of that. It was precisely this mix that England were forced to change in their last two subcontinental series, having to field two specialist spinners in the second test of each of those series. Expect the same delayed wisdom in the current series.
2. With Sehwag and Gambhir going well against seam in the first session, Cook persisted with more seam than spin, giving away early momentum advantage to India. The ball was coming slowly off the pitch, and the batsman were grateful for the pace on the ball. Not taking away anything from Sehwag, conditions demanded better use of resources by Cook, rather than going with the “normal” seam heavy model.
3. That leads to the question of spinning options available to Cook. Given the side picked, Samit Patel and Kevin Pietersen could have been used much more. Maybe even Trott to take pace off. If nothing else, Swann in shorter spells with fewer scoring opportunities from the other end, may have proven even more effective.
4. Yes, there were fielding lapses, and they can not be criticised endlessly. The issue that glared was that the previously tested and reliable fielders in specialist positions were missing. I’d have gone with Cook at short-leg, Jimmy at slip, and so on. On flat batting tracks, typical of fresh test match pitches in the subcontinent, fielding lapses can prove expensive, as they did here.
5. Bowling consistent offside lines works well, creating opportunities in seaming conditions and on bouncy pitches. However the same line can offer easy width and scoring opportunities on slow low tracks. This was not worked out by the England seamers in the crucial early part of the innings, as they continued to bowl in their “best areas”, ideal for seaming conditions.
6. Good bowling, with well thought out plans, disciplined lines and lengths creates trouble for batsmen, English or Indian. Swann bamboozled Kohli on day one with a beauty, as did Ashwin when going through Compton’s gate on day two. Common aspect was the cauldron like pressure created by the bowler and the close fielders, allowed by the batsman only looking to keep everything out, rather than looking to rotate the strike.
Notably much of this hind-sight may only be worth considering for the second test.
So what can England do, if anything, to stay in this contest at Ahmedabad? It is the last issue that England need to focus on for the rest of this match. There will be the odd ball keeping low, the one that turns square and the one that bounces more than expected, so trying to keeping everything out defensively will not ensure it.
The best way forward for England at Ahmedabad is to keep the scoreboard ticking with one’s and two’s. Sounds easier than it is, but instead of wondering about the pitch or getting bogged down by their track record against spin, the English batsmen would be best advised to keep seeking comfort at the non-strikers end. Best place to be batting if you want to occupy the crease for long. Precisely what England need to do now, occupy the crease for long.