In the bad old days overseas teams especially from the so-called new Commonwealth – not Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – could be summarised from a cricketing perspective according to certain perceived characteristics. Hence, the West Indies played “calypso” cricket; all very cheerful when things were going well.
In the case of Pakistan there is a sense in which this sort of categorisation is continuing. The standard forecast when a series against Pakistan is pending is “Which Pakistan will turn up?”, such is the unpredictability of the offering.
Are England really so different? Performances so far in the truly extraordinary series against India suggest not.
Actually England and Pakistan are not so very different right now. Each has one of the world’s great batsmen, Joe Root and Babar Azam. Each has a penetrative pace attack. Each has a slightly flaky top order. Pakistan like most sides, lack a world-class all-rounder, but currently so do England. Pakistan have a highly effective leg spinner. They also have one of my favourite batsmen, the unique and truly memorable Fawad Alam, who recently scored his fifth Test century in his thirteenth match; he has made one fifty – that’s a conversion rate any of the “Fab Five” would be proud of. Pakistan, though, seem rooted in the lower ranks of the Test rankings. History, and her membership of the Big Three, enable England to entertain delusions of grandeur which usually remain just that.
The single largest cause for regret in the international game at the moment is the fact that India and Pakistan cannot play each other in Test cricket. They meet now and again in ICC tournaments, but imagine the excitement of a proper contest, a five-match Test series between these two wonderfully equipped teams, even on neutral territory. The history of Indo-Pakistan cricket has not always been especially glorious. A lot of the early games were turgid beyond endurance. You get the feeling it would not be like that now.
Are India any different, really, from England and Pakistan? Are they also totally unpredictable? The current series would certainly suggest that that might be so. The second Test, at Lord’s, and the third, at Headingley, were almost bewildering in the contrasting fortunes of the two sides. The first Test, at Nottingham, was drawn after the final day was washed out. It is more likely than not that India would have won had rain not intervened but the difference between the sides was not a huge one.
After a difficult first day at Lord’s when Root won the toss and elected to field, England had much the better of the game. That is, until the fifth morning, when the game really seemed to be in the bag. Root and the bowlers lost the plot, apparently fixated with giving Jasprit Bumrah some of his own medicine after he had targeted James Anderson on the third evening. Steve Harmison, on the Following On podcast, said that it takes a long time to win a Test match – but you can lose one in an hour. That’s what happened on that morning – England’s abject batting display in the afternoon was almost inevitable. People compared India’s win to their famous victory in Brisbane a few months earlier. For England supporters with longer memories there was only one comparison – Adelaide 2006-07.
And then Headingley. Let’s face it, India were never in the game at all. The high point was Virat Kohli winning the toss. After that, it was downhill all the way. The first day scorecard, India 78, England 120 for 0, seemed almost surreal. But it turned out to be just the start. The incomparable Root scored his third century of the series and his sixth of the year. Has there ever been a great player who makes it all look so easy and unfussy. The top four all made over 50.
India fought hard on the third day. That evening there were still people saying they might make 500 and give us another Headingley miracle. Oli Robinson put paid to all that on Saturday morning. He got Cheteshwar Pujara early and then Kohli, though only after Anderson had bowled one of those overs to the Indian captain that people will talk about for years.
It was an absolute thumping. India are of course unpredictable. They were, after all, bowled out for 36 at the start of what turned out to be a triumphant tour of Australia in 2020-21. There is more to it than unpredictability. If Test cricket at the moment has a problem – I mean apart from all the other problems that make the administrators think it is not worth nurturing – it is that home sides have too much of an advantage. That was manifestly the case when England were in India earlier this year. Now the boot is on the other foot. India started astonishingly well, especially their classically based opening batsmen, Rohit Sharma and K L Rahul. But this is a long and hard series and, as Sharma has admitted, England is a very hard place to bat. There is no better demonstration of this than the fate of Rishabh Pant. He was one of the stars of the Australian tour; there is less lateral movement there. It is more challenging in England. Pant has struggled at number six and by the second innings at Headingley he was looking like a novice. It is hard to see him improving over the last two games.
In a way, strange as it may seem, it is almost good that The Hundred started this year. This series has been so riveting, has had so much to offer, that it seems hard to believe that anyone could prefer the transparent shallowness of The Hundred. The potential tragedy is that the administrators seem prepared to risk the lifeblood of their most glorious 140-year old product for the sake of their gimcrack, parvenu sideshow.
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