India lay down their marker as spin takes a backseat
Football might be coming home, but cricket isn’t. Not for a while, anyway.
After their success against a diminished Australia – defeated 6-0 across limited-overs formats – England were brought crashing down to earth by an India side that look significantly better than anyone England have played since 2015.
The real worry for England is that, over the last three years, they have built their limited-overs strategy upon amassing vast scores on surfaces ideal for batting. While they have, from time to time, conceded huge totals, they have backed themselves to score more. Even if that requires a total well in excess of 350 in ODI cricket.
But on the limited evidence of this series, India have the batting firepower to match – or surpass – anything England can achieve on such surfaces. And, crucially, a bowling attack with a little more bite to render any chase a more risk-filled business.
Maybe on surfaces where the ball nips around laterally, the likes of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli can be contained. But on these pitches? Where batsmen can hit through the line and the boundaries can be cleared with relative ease? They look daunting. And MS Dhoni didn’t even make it to the crease.
The only way England were going to contain India here was by taking wickets. But after the ball stopped swinging after a few deliveries – David Willey struck Rohit on the pads when the first ball of the innings nipped back and then beat him outside of when the next held its line – England looked toothless in the face of the assault that confronted them. Unless Willey strikes in those first few balls, England look set for a long session in the field.
Eoin Morgan reckoned England fell 25 or so short of the total they should have set. But the ease with which India knocked off the runs suggested they could have chased even that amount – and quite possibly another 20 or so on top of that – with confidence.
Indeed, the margin of defeat may flatter England a little. It was only their fielding – perhaps the one area in which they are better than India – that kept them in the game. It took three outstanding catches to claim the India wickets. One of them, by Chris Jordan, was an almost impossibly good running catch at long-on to end KL Rahul’s innings. Take that out of the equation – and you can’t really plan for the miraculous – and India’s victory would have been even more thumping.
The most impressive aspect of this victory in Bristol, from an Indian perspective, is that it was achieved without much assistance from their spinners. Persuaded to drop Kuldeep Yadav by a green-tinged surface and some painfully short boundaries, India instead opted to deliver 16 overs of seam. And, tellingly, they were delivered at greater pace – both Deepak Chahar and Umesh Yadav bowled quicker deliveries than anything managed by any England bowler – and greater control than England could manage.
“Hardik Pandya hit a good length,” Morgan said afterwards. “And we didn’t hit it.
“On this ground taking wickets is a priority. So I was chopping and changing [the bowlers] and trying to find a wicket. Trying to be as unpredictable as we could. And it didn’t work.
“India stuck to banging in a hard length, until they went to yorkers towards the end. We watched them do it, after we couldn’t, and it emphasises that we need to be better at either putting somebody off their length or hitting length.”
There are caveats. Most importantly, this was a T20 series. England are a better, more experienced unit in 50-over cricket. This was the first time since the World T20 in 2016 that England have even attempted to assemble their best T20 side – it is the format that has been used to rest and rotate players for higher priority cricket – and it stands to reason they will improve for greater experience and exposure.
They missed a couple of decent players, too. Both Chris Woakes and Mark Wood may well have strengthened their bowling – especially at the death.
England might take some encouragement from the fact they won in Cardiff, too. It shows it can be done. And it’s more than two years until the next World T20. There is time to learn. Joe Root, for example, who has hardly played T20 over the last few years and was here dropped by England for the first time since January 2014 (the Sydney Test that ended England’s miserable Ashes campaign) will react to this setback by working harder than ever. The whole of this England set-up could do well to look at the way India play – matching the aggression with the bat with the ball – and learn from it.
But many of the decisive factors in this series – the variety of India’s bowling, the strength of their batting – will apply to 50-over cricket, too. The upcoming ODI series should provide an excellent gauge of England’s real standing in the format. If they can beat India in these conditions, they really can be considered favourites for the World Cup.
India have shown how high the bar is in this series. Clearing it, in 20 or 50 over cricket, looks desperately tough.