All the places ‘smug analysts’ got it wrong when they predicted England’s Test fortunes in India
When the series began, a lot of us analysts expected India to dominate the two Tests and lead two nil at this point. However, the series stands at 1 – 1, and both the matches were closely contested.
What were the factors that surprised us, smug analysts?
Disciplined English bowling
Except for James Anderson, most of the other bowlers in the English ranks had no experience of bowling in India; England did not play Anderson in the first Test. Despite having an attack where the lead spinner was not a bowler but an all-time great batter, Joe Root, England managed to get 40 wickets in the two Tests.
Much of the credit has to go to Ben Stokes’s field placements, his friendly management of new players, and the positive vibe of the team. Tom Hartley was the stand-out bowler from this bowling attack.
He was hit around mercilessly by Yashasvi Jaiswal and company during the first innings of the Hyderabad Test. However, Hartley learned from the experience and bowled slower, flatter, and within the stumps in the next three innings to control the runs. In the second innings he got sharp turn from different lines and picked up a match-winning 7-fer. Despite no help from the Vizag pitch, Hartley displayed reasonable control of line and length and his labour was rewarded with wickets in both innings.
James Anderson put on a bowling exhibition during the Vizag Test. His wobble seam deliveries moved so late that the batters had little time to adjust. This late movement of the ball is one of the reasons why Jimmy’s deliveries appear to be going faster than what the speed gun reports.
The deliveries to dismiss Ravi Ashwin in the first innings and Rohit Sharma in the second were the best among the lot; the way those deliveries hit the wobbly seam and sharply moved away from the right-hander so late, the batter had little time to move the bat to meet the ball with the middle. The wobble seam is a recent game-changing addition to the bowler’s repertoire.
India’s indifferent batting – A Jekyll and Hyde approach
India’s greatest strength in home Tests is their long batting lineup. With Axar batting at 9, India rarely collapsed for low scores. However, in this series, specifically from the second innings at Hyderabad, the batters gave the impression that they were facing up to the Aussie attack of 2004 or the West Indies of the 80s.
In the first innings at Hyderabad many batters were guilty of throwing away their wickets to injudicious lofted shots against innocuous bowling. After this innings, they turned into over-cautious batters and lost their rhythm so badly they missed punishing long hops and over-pitched deliveries from the novice spin attack.
Unsurprisingly, only the batters who played their shots judiciously got the big runs in both Indian innings at Vizag. Yashasvi Jaiswal and Shubman Gill played with ‘intent’ and hit the ball hard to get plenty of boundaries. The remaining batters often went into a shell and allowed England to prise them out. Even Shubman Gill turned the corner only at Vizag after playing too cautiously in Hyderabad.
A freak innings by Ollie Pope
Ollie Pope’s 196 in the second innings at Hyderabad turned that Test around for England. He used his reverse sweeps to put Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja off their nagging lengths and denied them their customary bag of wickets in India. The low bounce of the wicket aided his choice of strokeplay, and the two dropped catches also helped him.
This innings of Pope shocked the Indian team so much they lost the plot for the rest of the match. The mental impact this Houdini act had on the Indian team was far more significant than the 230-run lead Pope set up for his team. The Indians became meek and over-cautious, reflected in their below-par scores in the next three innings.
Batting friendly pitches
The two pitches were traditional Indian tracks, which typically aid batting in the first few days and then help the spinners for the rest. The pitch in Vizag did not break even on the fourth day, so the firmness of the pitch helped the English batters stay positive and score runs at their Bazball rate through both their innings.
What can we expect in the next three Tests?
After writing a piece on how analysts misread this series, it takes some foolhardiness to forecast. But our job is to do it and eat humble pie when proved wrong.
The pitches in Rajkot and Dharamsala will be good for batting with good bounce. Ranchi’s pitch is typically slow and low and might resemble the Hyderabad pitch.
I expect India to reflect on their batting approach and play more positively. Indian batters have to play their shots judiciously and look for more fours, not sixes. They should not get into a shell and miss scoring opportunities like they often did. Jaiswal and Gill’s innings’ should be the batters’ template.
I don’t expect any difference in how England will play the rest of the series. However, they should ask Joe Root not to play like he did in the second innings at Vizag. That innings looked like what a no.10 or 11 would play, not an all-time rated Test batter. The fact England scored in the 200s three times out of four will be a cause for concern for them.
I expect a Border-Gavaskar trophy 2017-like finish to this enthralling series at Dharamasala.