Ardent sports lovers still recovering from the hangover of the recently concluded FIFA World Cup, will now shift their focus to a spirited test series being played out in England. Not that the English didn’t cheer Cook and Co. in their home series against Sri Lanka even while England’s football team succumbed to yet another group stage defeat ending a disappointing World Cup campaign. The English cricketers were instantly put under undue pressure - the fans quickly wanted to bury their recent footballing failures, perhaps expecting some degree of solace from their test team.
Barely hours after Rooney and Gerrard were repaid with boos after a dull draw in their last match against Costa Rica, back home, last-wicket pair Anderson and Moeen Ali batted out of their skins to almost deny a Sri Lankan victory, but the tide turned with the penultimate ball of the match, adding to the country’s woes. England lost a nail-biter with just one ball to spare, thereby conceding to Sri-Lanka a historic test series win. It had been an unforgiving week for England.
While the football team will have to wait for another 4 years to redeem their lost pride, the test series against India provides England with a golden chance to re-write their inglorious record when it comes to competitive sports. Their captain Alastair Cook is still under fire for his poor performance with the bat. Kevin Pietersen’s infamous ouster has only made things difficult for the current crop of players. With the retirement of Graeme Swann, the selection panel has once again been left in the wilderness hunting for a specialist spinner. The series loss to Sri Lanka has put non-performers under the scanner. Given the insurmountable stress on his nation, team, and himself, Cook must add the right ingredients to the broth to taste success.
The drawn first test against India showed glimpses of English fight-back. India, who themselves have a lopsided test record, didn’t do them any favours as the English bowlers put their best foot forward. They would have hoped to deny the Indians a centurion but Vijay played his role to perfection. What caught them off guard was the batting maturity shown by Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and debutant Stuart Binny, both of whom guided India to safe waters after a well-known ‘genetically-ingrained’ batting collapse of the visitors lifted English hopes.
It was England’s shot at victory after James Anderson’s perseverance and Joe Root’s temperament that took the match beyond India’s grasp. Overall, the English inability to skittle the Indians out for a low second innings score meant that the match would produce no result.
However, can England take out the positives from their reasonably hard-fought draw ahead of the crucial 2nd test?
Though it is tough for any cricketer to recover from a shock loss in the penultimate ball of a test match, Anderson made amends by emerging as the standout player from both sides. He made the ball talk even on a slow track maintaining a steady line and length. However we may safely assume that Anderson was more determined to stick around with the bat. Providing able support to talented middle-order batsman Joe Root, Anderson played with conviction and purpose, not allowing the ignominy of his previous outing to take the better of him. He was a source of inspiration for his battered team-mates.
Incidentally, and more importantly, Anderson might have given his captain a run for his money.
But he may have put his team in a spot of bother after news broke out that the bowler allegedly threatened and physically pushed Ravindra Jadeja in the first test prompting ICC to investigate the incident. India has written a formal complaint citing Anderson’s on-field behaviour and if found guilty of a Level 3 offence, might face ban for at least 4 test matches. As an English critic famously said, ‘Who is now going to score runs for England?’ underlining the vital role that Anderson will have to play if England is to trounce the visitors.
Joe Root is England’s version of Virat Kohli. A gifted bloke who makes shot-making an ease to watch, Root took it upon himself to bail his team out and so he did. England was left tattering at 205/7 at this stage and somebody had to partner with the tail-enders. Proving that he is English cricket’s future hope, Joe Root’s sensibility derives from a childhood desire to take on challenges and coming out of it unscathed. Even if it earned them a draw, Root was the team’s saving grace and in-form player. Would England stand to benefit from their dependency on Root or will Neymar-ing the youngster affect his own performance as well as the team‘s?
India handled short-pitch bowling with relative ease. But that wasn’t going to stop Stuart Broad from peppering a few more. A relentless pacer, Broad played his part in softening the Indians on the back-foot before Anderson dealt the final blow. His team-work with the experienced Anderson has enabled them to win games for England through sheer mastery of swing bowling. Given his towering height and nipping outswingers, Broad poses a far more dangerous threat with the new ball. Sustaining his form will not only lighten the burden on Anderson but also provide Cook with back-up options. Somehow, Broad hasn’t been fortunate enough to pick more wickets than he has.
Probably, experimenting with Moeen Ali on a long-term basis may not be the right step. Despite his first two series against spin-loving subcontinental batsmen, Ali lacks the guile that propelled Swann to greater fame. England needs to discover an effective successor to Swann if are they to give themselves any opportunity at excelling in Sri Lanka later this year. He looked patchy throughout his bowling spell, unable to land the bowl on certain occasions which proved fodder for Indian batsmen.
The form of Cook, however remained the talking point, both before and after the match. The English skipper is yet to score a century from his last 24 innings and tactical errors have put his captaincy too under scrutiny. After an unlikely and frustrating tenth-wicket stand between Shami and Kumar forced Cook to resort to his part-timers (pacers were losing steam), many believed that the captain would regain his form against a team that has so often been the lucky charm for century-deficient batsmen.
Cook looked positive in intent, opening his account with a boundary off Shami. But his questionable technique at the crease nailed his downfall; an uneasy shuffle to the off-stump to negotiate a straight delivery crashed into his stumps. England wouldn’t bat again and Cook’s failure with the bat would once again be back in the spotlight. It seemed Cook would soon lose faith in himself. Maybe the captaincy has taken a toll on him. Only Cook knows.
As England take on a confident-looking India in the upcoming test matches, such questions will loom even larger in front of Cook. The fans would be looking forward to nothing less than a series win and failing to deliver can do funny things to one’s career. The senior members, especially Ian Bell and Matt Prior, must step up to deliver. For them, now it is not only about rescuing their skipper and appeasing fans; they too are staring deep at their own berths in the team. Nothing less than a positive result will soothe English angst. They can’t afford to be the nation’s next Gerrard or Rooney. England’s sporting pride is at stake now more than it has been ever before.