India has been here before: overwhelmed at the start, its preparations examined, its quality questioned, its out-cricket derided.
At this stage, everything is fair game. The way its cricketers enter the ground — not with the practised collective menace of Australia, but in shambolic trickles — is held up as proof of a lack of intensity. Suddenly, the batsmen are “much vaunted”, air quotes for sardonic emphasis; the bowlers, on the other hand, simply don’t befit a No. 1 team.
There is some truth in each of these criticisms — just as any position can be both defended and torn down. But what this Indian team has been particularly good at doing is rebounding from defeat.
Vulnerabilities haven’t so much been fixed as transcended. And this is the clincher: India has done it by staying true to its style of play.
With any defeat — especially one by as substantial a margin as 196 runs — it’s difficult to ascertain the general cause: did the side play badly or was it prevented from playing well? Andrew Strauss, asked this question after the first Test, said, as wise men invariably do, that it was a bit of both — naturally, Strauss played up his team’s performance over five days and withheld comment on the opposition.
As well he should. Barring the catching, England’s cricket was of a high standard. During the course of each team’s first innings, which was in essence the difference in the Test, England had the worst of the conditions.
But Kevin Pietersen constructed a many-splendoured double-century which began in swinging, seaming conditions, Jonathan Trott batted with masterly touch against the moving ball, Ian Bell starred in a vital cameo, and Matt Prior played the first of his two momentum-altering innings.
In the second innings, with Ishant Sharma threatening to run through the innings and set up an achievable run-chase, Prior and Stuart Broad rescued the situation.
England’s finest suit in the Test, however, was its bowling. James Anderson, Chris Tremlett, and — by this evidence — Stuart Broad comprise world cricket’s finest seam-attack. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel form a viciously lethal pair, but South Africa lacks a quality third quick. England also has Graeme Swann, the most attacking spinner in the game today, but one who can defend if necessary.
Even without Virender Sehwag (and with a less than fully fit Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir), India’s batting is formidable. To bowl it out for 286 and 261 deserves the highest praise. The manner of the dismissals tells the story: many of the top batsmen were beaten in defence, the toughest task at this level and therefore the most valued. Most of those who fell to forcing strokes were coerced; it wasn’t always an act of volition.
So it has been established that England found a gear not all sides have. What of India?
Zaheer Khan’s absence affected the team greatly. For one, it compelled three men to do the work of four — never easy, but particularly tough when the only other seam option is the captain who keeps wicket.
Zaheer is also India’s best at taking wickets, at working batsmen out over a spell, at guiding others to similar success. His experience in English conditions, and of English batsmen, is just as valuable.
Praveen Kumar stepped up in the first innings and Ishant did the same in the second. But both were lone efforts. Compare it to England’s bowling: Tremlett and Broad compensated for Anderson in the first innings, while all three bowled with sustained excellence in the second.
Harbhajan Singh is often criticised with good reason. But the first Test was one of those occasions on which he did better than his figures suggested. Although he gave up at certain stages and reverted to type, he tried to make things happen by slowing his pace.
India’s bowling, which might not contain Zaheer, will have to find the means to take 20 wickets at Trent Bridge — where it’s known to swing.
It managed only 14 here at great cost. If there’s any consolation, it’s that the bowlers will find Trent Bridge less eccentric. Ishant admitted he struggled with the Lord’s slope till he followed Zaheer’s advice and bowled up the hill from the Nursery End.
Touring batsmen dislike the slope as well; the sight-screens here, particularly the one at the Nursery End which fails to adequately backdrop the release of taller bowlers, aren’t loved either.
At least the problems created by Lord’s will no longer exist. But India will need to rise above the others to maintain its reputation. This English team will take some beating. Hindu