Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust: if Ashwin don’t get you, Axar must. The whole cycle of English cricket rolls – or lurches – from Ashes to Ashes. The management tend to forget about dust until suddenly there it is, blowing up in their faces.
The pink-ball Test in Ahmedabad was supposed to be a red-letter day for England’s seamers. “I can tell you,” said Ben Stokes beforehand, “Jimmy [Anderson], Jofra [Archer] and Stuart [Broad] have been licking their lips.” Afterwards, with one wicket between them, the only thing they were licking was their wounds.
The headline that traditionally appears on these occasions, “England in a spin”, had become an understatement. The entire team managed 193 runs in the match – about the same as their captain, Joe Root, had made in one innings against the same opponents three weeks earlier.
Where do they go from here? In the age of Covid-19, one answer is nowhere. They have to stay in the same room, practise in the same nets, bat on the same square. It won’t be the same pitch, but it may as well be. When Virat Kohli announced, absurdly, that a strip on which neither team reached 150 had been “very good to bat on”, he was effectively saying: “Same again, please, groundsman.” His last series against England ended in a (rather unjust) 4-1 defeat. He is surely gunning for a resounding 3-1.
So England have to assume that another dustbowl awaits them. This probably means another drubbing, but they can’t afford defeatism. Can they pick a better XI? They can certainly pick a more suitable one. Leaving out the second spinner did not cost them any wickets, as Root bagged a fantasy five-for, but it did distort their strategy. Root brought himself on for the 42nd over, with India, on 117 for five, already ahead. In the previous Test, he had summoned his second spinner (Moeen Ali) after 13 overs in the first innings and four in the second. By the time Root the captain took Root the bowler seriously, when India batted again, it was too late.
After dropping Dom Bess and then dissing him in public by letting slip that Moeen had been asked to stay on, Root can now rehabilitate him. It’s a marginal call. “The uncomfortable truth,” Nasser Hussain said at the weekend, “is that Root really is the second-best spinner.” But England’s least implausible road to redemption is for Root to make big runs, so they can hardly expect him to bowl 30 overs. Let Bess do the legwork, find his length, and stiffen the tail, which needs his tenacity.
The bowlers have not actually done badly: India’s batting average so far, 26.76, is their lowest in a home series for five years. It is the batting that has blown England’s chance of an upset. In the pink-ball Test, three absent friends were sorely missed. One was Jos Buttler, who was rested: he would surely have deduced, as his understudy Ben Foakes did not, that mere defiance was pointless. Foakes faced more deliveries in the match than any other Englishman (86), and hit only one of them for four.
The second miss was sitting in the Channel 4 studio: Alastair Cook. Rory Burns and Dom Sibley have some of his cussed temperament, but hardly any of his technique against spin. The third miss does have that technique, only to find himself ignored. England’s best available opener in Asia is Keaton Jennings, who has two hundreds in only five Tests there. On Saturday he popped up in another newspaper, analysing the different kinds of sweep shot. His account was painfully authoritative.
In the absence of Jennings, England will persist with Sibley and Zak Crawley. The good news is that both started this tour badly and then recovered – Sibley with a dogged 87 in the first Test, Crawley with that dreamy 53 in the third. The bad news is that Sibley has now regressed and Crawley has fallen to left-arm spin six times in a row. If Axar Patel takes the new ball again, Crawley, who mostly deals in effortless boundaries, needs to nudge some canny singles.
As past masters of the batting collapse, England get plenty of practice at bouncing back. Their real shockers – the 46 all out at Port-of-Spain in 1994, the 51 at Kingston in 2009, the 58 at Auckland in 2018, the 67 at Headingley in 2019 – have all been followed by solid performances from senior players. Root and Stokes, who briefly threatened that on Thursday, need to dig deep. Jonny Bairstow, who seemed disorientated after two doses of jet lag, has to help out. It is, of course, far easier said than done. But there’s a faint chance of a fightback and somehow the elders of the tribe must grab it.