Trent Bridge to the Oval: How England and India Played a Game of Trading Places

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Trent Bridge to the Oval: How England and India Played a Game of Trading Places
Gareth Copley/Getty Images

"It is an amazing turnaround," Alastair Cook said in the warm glow of victory after the fifth Test at The Oval.

He was only talking about England. But he could have been talking about India, too. 

Cook, of course, was talking about how his side had turned around a 1-0 deficit after the second Test at Lord's to maul India 3-1. And yet, somehow that convincing scoreline doesn't tell half of the story. Not even close. Not at all. 

"That's what sport can do to you," Cook added. 

Not like this, it shouldn't. 

Test cricket is typically not a game where you plummet to rock bottom, the lowest of lows, only to find a cushy children's play pit (you know the ones with the foam blocks) to catch you before a giant trampoline propels you back up the proverbial mountain. 

But that's what happened. 

Test cricket is typically not a game where you thump an opponent into the ground and stand on their throat, only to see that opponent pull out some kind of Mortal Kombat death move to suddenly kill you from a foetal position. 

But that's what happened. 

Against a disintegrating England, India had an Incredible Hulk-sized hand wrapped around the Pataudi Trophy after Lord's, yet ended up being spat on, laughed at and Mortal Kombat-ed just 11 days of cricket later. 

England and India traded places. And no one really knows how. 

 

More Nagpur than Nottingham

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MS Dhoni walked out to the middle to meet Cook for the toss at Trent Bridge knowing his team hadn't won a Test away from home in three years. Opportunities had come and gone in that time—notably in both South Africa and New Zealand—but had been squandered. 

Dhoni also knew he'd arrived in England with a history of conservatism, a reputation that has hurt his captaincy. Wanting to shrug that perception, he and team management opted for five bowlers instead of four, seemingly intent on claiming the 20 required wickets. The plan was to also share the workload around. 

But they picked Stuart Binny to be the fifth bowler. Or the second all-rounder. Or the bit-and-pieces guy. Or the energy guy. Yet he wasn't any of those things. He was basically picked to eat the sandwiches at lunch. 

What India essentially did was pick a batsman with a first-class average of 35 to bat at No. 8 and not bowl. Yes, he completed 10 overs, but his team-mates bowled 135. When James Anderson had his Burnley Lara persona going in full flow in his record stand with Joe Root, that felt like 535. So much for sharing the workload. 

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With the bat, only Murali Vijay looked at home, even though the conditions in Nottingham appeared to have been transported in from Nagpur. So lifeless was the pitch that the groundsman even apologised before the ICC labelled it "poor."

Yet, forgotten amid the hysteria of low bounce and the lack of assistance for the bowlers—it came pretty close to 10-pin bowling on Days 4 and 5—was that India's top-order stumbled. Twice. England, in their only innings, did too. 

Despite grumblings from bowlers everywhere about the imbalance of the contest, India lost five-for-42 in one stretch in their first innings, five-for-44 at one point in their second and watched England lose five-for-48 in 15 overs in between. 

On a surface devoid of life at even a bacterial level, established batsmen were outplayed by tail-enders—one of them with a batting average of 3.33, another with a previous best of 34. 

The Test finished with Matt Prior standing up to the stumps to Stuart Broad and Cook taking a wicket while performing Bob Willis impersonations. If ever a clash between two supposed heavyweights could be a farce, this was it.

And it was hard to tell who was worse. 

 

Short, Short and Shorter Again

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England like to bowl short. Very short. For whatever reason, whether it be due to Anderson and Broad's hatred of conceding boundaries, or because Cook thinks having two men out on the hook will stop the criticism of his unimaginative captaincy or because the boffins in the back room with the computer analysis tell them to, England's bowlers like to bang it in. 

After the surface debacle at Trent Bridge, the ground staff at Lord's presented a strip on the first morning that looked like an off-cut from an outside court at Wimbledon. Cook won the best toss of all time and sent the tourists in.

And then England bowled short. Senselessly short. So brain-dead and mind-numbingly short it was impossible to work out whether it was the planning or the execution at fault. A look at the Hawk-Eye pitch maps from ESPN Cricinfo shows just how comical it was.

Were these mollycoddled zombies in front of us, so removed from responsibility (this is a team, remember, who had their meal choices taken out of their hands during their trip to Australia) and incapable of using independent thought to adapt to the situation at hand? Or had England found such a low ebb that they couldn't do the most English thing possible and pitch it up on a green track?

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Anderson claimed four wickets on a pitch where he could've gotten all 10. Broad looked clueless. Liam Plunkett attempted to mock conventional wisdom, coming around the wicket to pitch the ball in his own half time and time again. Conventional wisdom mocked him instead. Only Ben Stokes pitched it up. 

India ended up making 295. On that pitch, against that England attack, they shouldn't have made half that. 

When the home side took to the crease, it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who, bowling at 75 mph and owning a grand tally of 14 Test wickets, showed them how to do it.

With more than a little irony, Ishant Sharma—the punchline to every cricketing joke in India—then bowled short and bounced England out on the final day. 

England, not Ishant, were the ones being laughed at. 

The Test finished when Ravindra Jadeja pounced on a mix-up between Anderson and Plunkett, firing the ball at the stumps to catch Anderson—yep, you guessed it—short.

 

Wrong Message

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Perhaps more than any other sport, Test cricket is a game in which the way one asserts their presence on an opponent heavily influences the path an encounter takes. Indeed, Test cricket—laborious in its storyline but extremely intermittent in its processuniquely lends itself to things such as one's aura, one's disposition and the manner of one's existence. 

Give an inch in the mind and that inch will be physically taken. It's a fact India forgot. 

At the toss at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, Dhoni announced that Rohit Sharma would replace Binny. It was a decision that sent the wrong message. To both India and England. "We're not here to win, only draw," the captain may as well have said. 

It was the turning point of the series.

Dropping Binny was the right move, yes. He'd done even less at Lord's than he had at Trent Bridge. Those sandwiches were all that were keeping him occupied. But already without Ishant due to injury, picking Sharma—and not Ravichandran Ashwin—told Cook and Co. that mere maintenance of the lead was India's only goal. 

There's a certain inevitability that ensues when only one team aims to win; the game seems to punish those with the wrong ambition.

On 15, Cook was dropped by Jadeja. He made 95.

On 10, Gary Ballance got away with a fine edge. He made 156.

On nought, Ian Bell escaped an LBW shout that was collecting middle. He made 167.

On nought, Jos Buttler was almost certainly caught in the slips but the catch was deemed not to have carried. He made 85. 

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In the space of one innings, the soul-crushing cloud of negativity and ridicule surrounding England had evaporated. 

Suddenly, it didn't matter that the Kevin Pietersen saga had been a public-relations disaster. It didn't matter that the old, supposedly discarded coach had been ridiculously promoted. It didn't matter that his successor had been sacked from the same position just five years ago. It didn't matter that ECB chairman Giles Clarke had said absurdly dumb things.

It didn't matter that the ECB had shown a seemingly apparent wish for censorship. It didn't matter that the England board's sole focus was still revenue. It didn't matter that only the second Test ever to be played in Southampton started on a Sunday. It didn't matter that Cook had said Prior could determine his own fate, despite the wicketkeeper's dire form. It didn't matter that Nasser Hussain, Ian Botham, Michael Atherton and Michael Vaughan had all stated that Cook should resign.

It didn't matter that the entire English system had looked like a steaming pile of excrement only days earlier, as highlighted by George Dobell of ESPN Cricinfo. 

None of it mattered. Well, maybe it did. Actually, it definitely still did.

But through India's fumbling of the momentum, through Dhoni and team management's wrong message via selection, England were awarded rays of optimism as that cloud departed, their sins temporarily forgotten thanks to fortune, thanks to their opponents' lack of ambition. 

Dhoni, of course, discovered what happens when you pick more and more batsmen: they each do less. Despite an ideal batting track, despite bright sunshine, despite playing six specialist batsmen, a keeper-batsman and a batting all-rounder, not one Indian passed 54 in the whole Test. 

Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane even played Moeen Ali into form in the first innings, watching him claim 6/67 to bowl England to a massive victory in the second. The part-timer—considered that, at least, prior to the Test—became only the third English spinner ever to take a six-wicket haul on home soil against India. 

"We need to take 20 wickets," Dhoni said after the loss.

Showing the tiniest hint of desire to achieve such a feat would have been a good start. 

 

The Devil's Number

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Controversies have a funny knack for galvanising one side and destroying the other. There's always one team who reacts well, channeling the energy into their performance, while there's always another who allow it to become a distraction, an excuse. 

Prior to the fourth Test, Anderson was cleared of wrongdoing in his altercation with Jadeja at Trent Bridge. 

The hearing lasted six hours. It's a number that stuck. 

On the opening morning at Old Trafford, India's three best batsmen departed in the space of six balls. In the innings, Broad claimed six wickets. India made six ducks. It equalled the highest number ever recorded.

The first-innings collapse was the sixth time India had been bowled out for 161 or less under Dhoni. The innings defeat was the sixth of such kind away from home under the current skipper. India's openers failed to reach 50 again, like they had in every match of six previous tours of England. 

In the first innings, India collapsed to 66-6.

In the second innings, India collapsed to 66-6. 

A six-hour hearing had suddenly put a 66-mile gap between the sides; England mauling an Indian team that let the controversy destroy their will.

Cook's men won inside three days. With rain delays that are typical in Manchester, the number of sessions that were fully completed only totalled six.

 

Two Days Rest

Alastair Grant/Associated Press

If you had to compare Dhoni to a movie character—ignoring gender—it would be The Oracle from The Matrix

Indeed, Dhoni speaks so cryptically, he forces you to make your own interpretations. He turns questions into more questions. He shrugs off pointed criticism. He speaks specifically and generally at the same time. His answers aren't answers, but carefully crafted assortments of words provoking both further thought and strange confusion. 

He might have even told Virat Kohli he's The One

One of those Oracle moments occurred immediately after the devilish Test at Old Trafford, when the Indian captain said that one of the positives of being beaten inside three days was that his team would get "two extra days to rest."

What do you make of that? What did England make of that? What did Dhoni's team-mates make of that?

Given that they lost in three days at The Oval, too, they obviously took it as an order to do the same again. 

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In their second-innings, India batted for 29.2 overs. It was the shortest completed Test innings by any team in more than 12 months and the sixth shortest in India's history. 

"Don't be jealous of the IPL," Dhoni quipped after the performance, when asked if Twenty20 cricket was at fault. If that's the result, no one's jealous. Dhoni's men put forward the most abject Test performance in recent memory. 

As India lined up in the shooting gallery at The Oval, it was the team's most admirable player, Kumar, who summed up the state of his team.

Until the final Test, Kumar had been a pillar of lower-order stability, using a classic technique to chip in with valuable runs to save his top-order team-mates. But in south London, Kumar gave up. Sick of bailing out others, sick of being thrown the ball after what would have seemed like five minutes of having his feet up, sick of everything, really, Kumar angrily slashed at balls barely hitting the pitch in both innings, feeding catches to the slips and facing only 17 deliveries in the process. 

The look in his eyes said it all: If they don't care, I don't either.

At least India got two more days rest. 

"You will have to wait and watch if I am strong enough or if I am not strong enough. You will get the news," Dhoni said as cryptically as ever when asked of his mental strength to go on. 

It was Cook, remember, who was being asked the same questions just a few weeks ago.

They really did trade places. 

 

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