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India put an old spin on England's usual script

Sunday, 18 November 2012 - 8:41am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

A failure to deal with spin on the subcontinent will yet again see the tourists sink to an opening defeat.

India is the home of a great body of literature, with some vast and ancient texts; works such as the 'Mahabharata' and 'The history of England losing the first Test of a series in Asia'. To this latter work another volume was added when England were tumbled out for 191. England have already lost six Test matches in this calendar year, and Alastair Cook's first as full-time captain - in spite of him valiantly leading from the front - is set to be the seventh.

It is not as if this text about beating England is in Sanskrit. It is in plain English for all to read. And the introduction is brief and very simple: "Produce a turning pitch for the opening Test, pick a couple of spinners and let England's batsmen do the rest."

England have succumbed to this ploy on their tours of India in 1981-82, 1984-85 and 1993, and of Pakistan in 1984. They have also fallen for it a couple of times in Galle in Sri Lanka. But the locals, it has to be said, never tire of this script. When something possessed Ian Bell to sky his first ball to a back-pedalling mid-off, and the finishing touch was that the back-pedaller was Sachin Tendulkar, the noise was enough to raise the rusty roof off the stands.

In England's defence, there was an extenuating circumstance: this pitch has turned more, and earlier in the game, than anywhere else they have lost in 2012. Every few overs on day three, India's left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha made a ball turn and lift unplayably from the dusting surface, which was not the case in the Galle Test or in the United Arab Emirates, where England were overwhelmed by Pakistan's spinners earlier in the year.

Another important ingredient of an England collapse in Asia is the novelty of the opposing spinners. The tourists were facing the artful Ojha and Ravi Ashwin for the first time in a Test, and no amount of practice against other spinners or mechanical simulators can prepare batsmen fully for the real thing. Which is only right, otherwise cricket would be a dry old science.

This was also a classic example of 'scoreboard pressure'. After England had muffed their selection by choosing a third superfluous pace bowler instead of Monty Panesar, and conceded 531 (the three seamers taking one for 245), England's batsmen were living in the shadow of a mountain - one liable to issue a landslide.

On the third morning it all added up to what a Test match should be: a test of every aspect of a cricketer. There was not only dust and haze in the Ahmedabad air but passion, which is seldom the case now when England play a Test abroad outside Australia; and even if the crowd was only 10,000, they made the noise of double that.

Cook and Kevin Pietersen, England's overnight pair, had to stage something like a century stand when they resumed at 41 for three if England were to avoid the follow-on. But the heat generated by India's spinners, close fielders - four round the bat - and the crowd, not to mention the sun, made England melt first time round.

Against spin, it is each to his own, and Pietersen used his feet, frenetically at first, with greater discrimination as he settled. Cook - in both innings - used his reach to push forward, and took a step further a couple of times to drive. On a flat pitch both methods should prosper; but this turned so much that the off-spinner Ashwin once had only two fielders on the off side.

Pietersen, staying leg side, found Ojha spinning past his outside edge and knocking out his middle stump, as conclusively as can be. Next ball, there was another roof-raiser as Bell got himself out. "I think it's a very encouraging thing," Ojha said when asked about being charged first ball.

Bell has taken to going down the pitch to loft spinners early in his innings, which is fine, but not first ball on a slow turner.

Bell's career will be at a crossroads when he returns to India after the birth of his child and the Mumbai Test match. He might have to open, if Nick Compton fails to make the grade, although that became less and less likely as the debutant defended calmly when England followed on 330 behind. Or else Bell might be dropped, as England have plenty of middle-order batsmen who radiate more assurance than he currently does.

Cook survived the hat-trick ball, glancing it on the bounce to the finest of four short-legs, but his patience finally gave out soon afterwards.

The England captain had not put a foot wrong for 39 overs; he had ground out 41, driving to leg when the spinners over-pitched, along with the odd pull, cut or sweep. Then he was lured into a high-risk shot, an off-drive against an off-break, and was held at slip.

Samit Patel came second only to Cook in his assurance against the spinners but was undone by one of the biggest mistakes that Aleem Dar can have made in his distinguished career. The reverse-swinger by Umesh Yadav was going down leg-side and might not have brushed the leg of a second set of stumps.

Dar's decision against Stuart Broad looked incorrect too, but once again in India there was no Decision Referral System to turn to.

Lunch arrived at 11.30am, but still not soon enough for England. They had lost seven wickets by then and were mortally wounded. The measure of India's eagerness was that they bowled 34 overs in the morning, in spite of the time taken up by the fall of wickets.

In the afternoon England learnt an important lesson, one which will stand them in good stead if they can emerge from this game with some confidence intact. It is feasible to score runs against spin in India when the ball is old, and especially when Ojha is being rested, provided you survive the first half-hour.

Matt Prior, as rocky as anyone to start with, began to play his shots with an all-rounder's confidence. Tim Bresnan blocked and occasionally cover-drove; and after he had edged an unplayable ball to gully, Broad used the long handle with his long levers, and gradually run-scoring seemed a practicable pastime.

Emboldened by their lower-order colleagues, Cook and Compton made a much better fist second time around. The novelty of India's spinners wore off; the heat served to evaporate the morning's passion; above all, perhaps, the pitch slowed down. Thus England slowed India down and at least got a toehold in this series.

However, the greatest dictum in the ancient texts remains valid: "it is first-innings runs in Asia which matter".

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