When two of the top four sides in the world go head-to-head in a series of any length, in any sport, the expectation would be that of a titanic battle. When an intimidating and energetic home advantage is factored into the mix, it can provide an added layer of excitement. When England Men’s Cricket touched down in India for four tests, five T20’s and three ODI’s, a competitive, exciting and close test series was expected by most.
After a mammoth 578 in the first innings of the first test that included a double hundred from captain Joe Root, the England side drew first blood, claiming a 1-0 series lead. Consecutive batting collapses in the second test allowed India to draw level after a massive 317 run victory over the tourists. The stage was therefore set for a pivotal third test at the Norendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.
After winning the first test with a fantastic performance with the bat, England were looking to rectify the wrongdoings of their second test performance. A dismal batting exhibition saw England register just 193 runs in the entire match which included a mere 81 runs in their second innings. India won by ten wickets inside two days to take the lead in the series. Shortly after, they followed that up with a series win, registering a huge innings and 25 run victory inside 3 days. Once again England failed with the bat, registering just 205 and 135 in their two innings.
Having started the series so well and in such dominant fashion, England surpassed 200 just once in their next seven innings and even that was only just by five runs. Naturally, this is a long way from a winning formula in test cricket and following on from a convincing two-test series victory in Sri Lanka, England will be wondering where it all went wrong.
The Third Test
With the series split between two venues, the third test represented the first viewing at the Norendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. For context, the match being completed inside two days represents the first time that England have lost a test inside that second day in 100 years and was the shortest test played since 1936. Only England’s Zak Crawley and India’s Rohit Sharma survived to make a half century in a match that saw spinners take 28 of the 30 wickets that fell.
The duration of the match and the rates at which the wickets tumbled throughout the relatively short contest led to a swathe of criticism from the media, the majority of which were directed at the quality of the pitch. England captain Joe Root claimed that the situation had been “slightly misread” after he took an astonishing 5 wickets for 8 runs as just a part-time spinner. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, England’s leading wicket-takers of all-time, failed to register a single dismissal between them for the first time in 120 tests together.
After the match, India’s captain and cricket icon Virat Kohli blamed a “lack of application” from both batting line-ups, stating that whilst the conditions were difficult, the dismissals were down to an underwhelming performance from both teams.
In cricket, so much can be determined by the state of the pitch. Whilst the surface can impact the quality fo the game in other sports, a cricket pitch can favour a particular team or style of play considerably. At the elite end of the sport, entire team selections can be predicated on the kind of pitch that is expected and how the impact of the ball hitting the wicket will effect the play of both teams.
Whilst there can be a considerable number of variants, pitches can often be loosely categorised into three sections. ‘Dead’ pitches are synonymous with being completely flat and having no moisture. Traditionally, these are found in the southern hemisphere due to the increase in temperature. The ball therefore follows through with little deviation, making it difficult for bowlers to take wickets, allowing for high-scoring games.
‘Green’ pitches have a covering of grass and allow the pace bowlers to enjoy more success. The ball will swing more and have more movement off the bounce, making life difficult for batsmen against seam and swing bowling. On these surfaces, the ball tends to skid on rather than grip, making it difficult for spinners to extract real turn. Historically great players such as Dale Steyn and Glenn McGrath exploit these surfaces brilliantly.
Finally, ‘dusty’ pitches are perfect for spinners. The unrolled top surface remains soft, allowing the ball to grip and spin. Dusty pitches are also found in the subcontinent conditions and the Indian cricket team have been known for relying on the use of spinners in home matches. Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan are two of the greatest exponents of these kind of pitches.
Was it England’s fault?
Following the success of the first test, on a pitch that offered far less assistance to spin bowlers, England won comfortably to place India in a compromising 1-0 home deficit. The production of a wicket for the second Test that saw far more turn levelled the series before the historical third test in Ahmedabad.
Whilst the impact of a pitch that affects the bounce of the ball to such a degree cannot be completely dismissed, the ability to play the conditions as much as the delivery was evidently missing from the remainder of a series in which England limped to the finish line following such a strong start. Selection questions were raised as many of Englands’ key players were absent for part or all of the series and the worrying exposure of technical flaws in the batting line up has raised further questions as to England’s capacity to win a series in such conditions.
With such a profound and remarkable series in terms of manner of results, the anomaly that can be concluded should not be totally disregarded. An opportunity to expose England’s finest to treacherous, turning wickets will only serve to benefit those that find themselves in the firing line in the future in the longest format of the game. For the time being however, England have a home summer to look forward to as they welcome New Zealand and then India for Test series with shortened formats against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in between.