In eight days of play Captain Alistair Cook and his troops have produced a famous turn-around for English test cricket. One which ranks very close to the Botham, Willis, Dilley inspired return from the dead against Kim Hughes' Australia in the Ashes series of 1981.
The first test at Ahmedabad was a one-way street and the 2011 nightmare of the desert against Pakistan seemed likely to repeat itself. The conditions were not conducive to say the least - tracks were certainly going to be turners, better suited to India's batting and bowling strengths, and the absence of the DRS stuck in the throat. Skipper Dhoni was screaming for square turning tracks for the games ahead. It had all the trappings of another trial by spin series.
England learnt from Ahmedabad very quickly indeed. They did.
They responded to the team selection error of the first test, bringing in a second spinner for Mumbai. The England double spin attack of Monty Panesar and Graham Swann seized the opportunity, using the turn and bounce of the track way better than the triple spin attack of India. The key difference was the extra pace with which they hit the track, forcing false footwork and extracting more from the pitch.
Skipper Cook learnt from observing his opposite number that spin and reverse swing were the real weapons. His previous persistent use of pace made way for early use of spin. The increased spin resources at his command worked like a charm, but did not lead to complacency when it came to team selection decisions. First Tim Bresnan and then Stuart Broad made way for replacements. Steven Finn was included for the Kolkata test adding the additional dimension of pace and bounce to the attack. The combination came into its own at Kolkata, with Jimmy Anderson leading from the front, reverse swing and all.
The first innings was always going to be crucial in the conditions. Chasing in the fourth innings on tracks that turn on day one of the test match is always a tough proposition. England's first outing with the bat was the key. Here Alistair Cook has led the way from the front, like no skipper in recent memory. His unflappable temperament, true footwork, solid technique and regular rotation of strike, have been a real batting masterclass. At age 27 he is a legend, having scored more test centuries than any other Englishman, five as skipper in as many tests. He does love to lead from front, doesn't he?
The other key player to have come good at a suitable time has been the the super-talented Kevin Pietersen. Having looked unsure of his defence in Ahmedabad, he put that issue to bed effectively in Mumbai, and the runs have flowed freely since. Pietersen never let the Indian bowlers to build pressure on him, not by rotating strike, but by hitting the ball to all corners of the park.
England seemed to have recognised after the first game that the toss and the track were uncontrollable. The odd ball may turn square or keep low, so trying to keep everything out as they did at Ahmedabad wasn't going to be enough. Their approach in the middle shifted effectively to keeping the scoreboard ticking, rotating the strike, after taking the time to get used to the pace of the track. It has paid off handsomely.
With the Cook anchoring the big first innings at Mumbai and Kolkata, England built formidable leads to win both tests in nearly similar fashion. Every batsman who came out put a high price on his wicket, intent on occupying the crease. The weary legs in the Indian side allowed easy release of pressure more often than not. The Indian bowlers did not achieve much by way of reverse swing, and the spinners bowled at a slower pace allowing that fraction extra to adjust. It also needs to be said that the footwork of the England batsman against spin has been exemplary compared to their opposition. That much for old mythology!
The real difference in the two sides has been application and the will to scrap. In the past two tests the Indians have looked particularly jaded, playing an attritional brand of cricket. The Indian team is top heavy and ready for a few big changes, as we can agree. With the series now poised as it is, the question is when and how many. The dropping of Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh has been announced, but the real interest would be the eleven who take the field for the final test.
With only the Nagpur test to go, England have made a brilliant comeback into this four test series. They are up two games to one, looking at worst to a drawn series. Irrespective of the Nagpur result, England have already pulled off one their biggest turnarounds in test cricket, in a long time.
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