After one of the most difficult years in recent memory, England ended 2012 with a result that will again make the cricketing world sit up and take notice—and in doing so have laid down a marker ahead of next year’s back-to-back Ashes series.
England ended 2011 as the world’s top ranked Test team, riding series victories at home to India and away to Australia to the top of the cricketing tree. As the old adage goes, however, it is easier to get to the top than it is to stay there.
And so 2012 proved. A series of unfortunate events, including a dressing room meltdown, a drubbing in Dubai and a change of captain, saw them losing their ranking to South Africa.
After the year the team had endured, they could have been forgiven, perhaps, for not meeting a notoriously difficult tour of India with the needed relish to record England’s first series win there for 27 years.
Fears that this team would go to the sub-continent and get their noses—and morale—slowly ground into the India dust proved unnecessarily pessimistic, as they recovered from defeat in the first test to claim the series 2-1.
After an Ashes series in Australia, India is the hardest tour for an England team to triumph in. A combination of obsessive locals, energy sapping weather and pitches so slow that days pass between the ball pitching and a shot being played have all combined to leave England without a series victory in India since 1985.
It looked out of the grasp of rookie captain Alastair Cook as well, with England being easily beaten in the first Test, and murmurs resurfaced of the team’s inability to play spin, symbolized perfectly by the nervous prodding which characterized Kevin Pietersen’s early series efforts.
Until a few weeks before the series, it appeared unlikely star batsman Pietersen would ever play for England again after the summer’s indiscretions, let alone tour India. He did more than tour. His 186 in Mumbai combined perfectly with the inclusions of second spinner Monty Panesar, alongside Graeme Swann, to wrestle back the initiative and, for two Test matches, make India look decidedly ordinary.
That is no mean feat. On their own turf India have only lost two Test series at home this century and England have only won one Test match there since 1985.
India, in truth, sold themselves short. They got their tactics wrong throughout and allowed games to drift when the chance was there to turn the screw.
There are now serious questions over the future of the Test cricket's greatest ever run machine, Sachin Tendulkar, who at 39 looked a little slow and failed to make a significant contribution all series. The captain, MS Dhoni, also has come in for some flack, as has coach Duncan Fletcher, and both are now under serious pressure going into the new year.
Perhaps more worryingly for the host, however, was that they were out-bowled. Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann produced more wickets and greater control across the whole series than anything the plethora of Indian spinners could muster in even a single session after Ahmedabad. Dhoni’s call for a spinning wicket after the defeat in Mumbai played into England’s hands and left India searching in vain for a Plan B.
The captain, the coach, the star player and primary weapon all have serious questions to answer ahead of their next series.
That said, the performances of seam-bowler James Anderson, in conditions almost ideally suited to nullify his threat, was nothing short of astonishing. His 12 wickets took him to the top of the list of fast bowlers for wickets taken this year.
Not to be outdone, Alastair Cook became the first man to score a century in each of his first five Tests as England captain. In doing so, he became England’s greatest ever centurion with 23 Test match 100s and has now scored more runs in India than any other Englishman ever. At times he simply looked impossible to dismiss.
Success in English cricketing circles is unavoidably measured by Ashes victories. That Cook placed this victory on a par with the achievement of winning the Ashes in Australia shows how tough this series was. But what will please most fans is the building of momentum ahead of the 10 Test matches against Australia next year.
They have laid down a marker by winning in India (coincidentally where Australia next tours before coming to England), one which you can bet pricked the ears of an Antipodean or two.
Neither Cook nor Aussie captain Michael Clarke have captained an Ashes team before, though both have been involved on winning and losing Ashes teams. Each has seasoned campaigners and raw talent in his ranks. 2013 is going to be a fascinating year for Test cricket, and this victory in India has renewed hope, built confidence and whetted the appetite.