The England Test cricket team will end 2016 the same way they started it – in a tough away series against the world’s number one Test team. But unlike their famous 2-1 win against South Africa back in January the chances of England winning their five Test series in India which starts on Wednesday are very slim and they are in serious danger of suffering a humiliating 5-0 series defeat.
England’s warm up in Bangladesh did not go well. Before this tour England had won eight out of eight against Test cricket’s minnows. But they only won the first Test by 22 runs because of a mixture of the heroics of Ben Stokes and Bangladesh “bottling it” under pressure. In the second Test England needing 273 to win collapsed from 100-0 to a pathetic 164 all out to lose by an embarrassing 108 runs. The batting was clueless against Bangladesh’s spinners while England’s four spinners Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Barry and Zafar Ansari bowled far too many bad balls and struggled to contain the Bangladeshi batsmen.
And in India they will face far better players than they did in Bangladesh. India’s spinners Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja are far superior to their Bangladeshi counterparts who humiliated England and their seam bowlers are far superior. While Bangladesh collapsed from 171-1 to 220 all out in the Second Test India’s batsmen will not be so obliging. All in all England face a daunting task.
To show how daunting the task is since England’s 2-1 win in India back in 2012, four non subcontinental teams have toured India – Australia and West Indies (both 2013), South Africa (2015) and New Zealand (September/October this year). They have played a combined thirteen Tests in India between them losing twelve and drawing one. Australia, West Indies and New Zealand lost all their Tests in India and but for rain in Bangalore South Africa would very probably lost all their Tests as well. Between them in 25 innings Australia, West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand could muster only two totals of over 300 and only one century was scored – despite batsmen of the calibre of Michael Clarke. David Warner, Steve Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Kane Williamson being in the visiting teams. All four struggled against India’s spinners especially Ashwin who took a total of 99 wickets in those thirteen Tests. It is clear that England’s task is daunting.
But why is batting in India so tough? Former England captain Tony Lewis (who captained an England tour to India in 1972-73) has the answer. He said this (in “The Innings of My Life” by Jack Bannister (pages 144- 145)).
“It doesn’t take much for Indian spinners to dominate and, once they are on top, they never let go. It makes for exciting cricket of a type we never see in England. Each time the ball does something, the bowlers and fielders get more wound up -as do the crowd to whom every ball is life and death. Batsmen can hardly hear themselves think – communication with your partner has to be at close quarters – and it seems as though the pair of you haven’t got a friend in the world.
You lose wickets in clusters, so you are never safe, and the dressing room is always teetering on the edge of a combined nervous breakdown. For instance, in our second innings at Eden Gardens, we went from 17 for four to 114 for five, and then 138 for nine. In Madras we lost our first five wickets for 98, but then got to 242, and in the second innings we were 30 for three, 97 for four, 152 for six and 159 all out. It is an emotional rollercoaster you can laugh at when you have retired, but it is so easy for players to become demoralised when it is happening”.
Apart from the fact that the crowds for Tests in India are nowhere near as big as in 1972-73, everything Lewis said about batting in India is as true now as it was in 1972-73 (apart from neutral umpires and the Decision Review System (DRS) – which India have finally accepted). It is especially tough to start an innings in India with world class spinners a sharply turning ball and fielders round the bat. So if an English batsman gets to say 50 in India he must go on to at least 100 or even 150 as once a wicket falls the Indian spinners can go “Bang bang bang” and take two, three or four wickets very quickly. As the two batsmen most capable of producing innings of 150+ this puts huge pressure on captain Alistair Cook and Joe Root. But Australia, New Zealand and South Africa also have world class batsmen and they failed in India. Can Cook and Root do better? They have to. Also England’s spinners must improve. Spinners should put pressure on batsmen by bowling maidens but England’s spinners bowled a lot of garbage in Bangladesh and if they do the same in India Virat Kholi and company will feast on the easy pickings.
Is there any hope for England? Only in the past. In 1976-77, 1984-85, and 2012 England were in terrible form before they went to India. But on all three occasions England won famous victories – 3-1 in 1976-77, and 2-1 – after losing the first Test – in both 1984-8 5 and 2012. But in 1976-77 England had a world class spinner in Derek Underwood and in 2012 they had two – Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. The Indians were hoist by their own petard. In 1984-85 the Indian team were divided among themselves.
None of this applies today. England’s spinners – as was painfully obvious in Bangladesh – are poor. And Kohli leads a strong, confident rampant Indian team who aim to win all thirteen home Tests this winter (they already have beaten New Zealand 3-0, and after England play one Test against Bangladesh and four against Australia). Frankly this is as pessimistic as I’ve felt about an England Test series since the 2002-3 Ashes – which I thought they would lose 5-0 and if Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne had stayed fit they probably would have lost 5-0 instead of 4-1. Frankly considering England’s form in Bangladesh and the dominating performances of India at home I fear it will take a miracle – or rain – for England to avoid a humiliating 5-0 spinwash.