Whoever reckoned that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan can’t have ever tried to unpick a defeat as big as this one. But then, hardly anyone ever has. The last time England were beaten inside two days of Test cricket was against Australia at Trent Bridge in May 1921. That was 99 years, eight months and 25 days ago, and the nearest England came to any kind of century this week.
Wisden summed that defeat up like this: “Never in the history of Test matches in this country has English cricket been made to look quite so poor.” By the time next year’s Almanack comes out, we may just about have reached some consensus on exactly what went wrong here.
No one seems to agree. Start with the rotation policy, move on to the team selection, the failure to read the conditions, the technical failures and the hangover from the heavy defeat in Chennai last week. Then the batsmen’s inability to press their advantage when they were 74 for two in the first innings, the systematic lack of exposure to spin bowling caused by the skewed priorities of the ECB, the pink ball, the extreme nature of the pitch and the plain fact that they were up against a better team.
The ECB’s chairman, Ian Watmore, who flew all the way out to India to watch, will at least have plenty to think about when he’s stewing in quarantine on his way back. The debrief is going to go on a lot longer than the game did.
In order, then, let’s start with the rotation: a well-intentioned policy designed to protect the players’ mental health and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, but one which cost them both Moeen Ali, who would have shortened the tail and bolstered their spin bowling, and Jonny Bairstow, who was present in body but not spirit. Whatever else those few weeks at home did for Bairstow, they certainly didn’t help his game. The wild sweep he played to his very first ball in the second innings (given out lbw but overturned on review; he was clean bowled the next ball) was a shot played in resignation rather than expectation.
Then the team selection, which meant England stacked their attack with four fast bowlers who ended up delivering 27 overs for one wicket between them. We were told the quicks had done plenty in the nets and were “licking their lips” at the prospect of bowling with a pink ball under the lights. This misplaced faith was exposed, in hindsight, the minute India announced that they were picking three spinners.
As for the lingering effects of the 317-run defeat last week, you could see some of that in the way Dom Sibley spent 30 minutes settling in, then snapped and tried to slap the ball for six in the misguided belief he needed to try to be more positive, like a man suffering with a nervous tic.
You could hear evidence of them, too, in Joe Root’s repeated protestations after the game that his team needed to make sure they didn’t carry “baggage” and “scars” into the fourth Test. As for the technical issues, they seemed to be best summed up by the struggles of Ollie Pope, England’s best and brightest young batsman, who in both innings seemed to be so hopelessly lost at sea that it was like watching a man try to paddle a raft across the ocean with a dessert spoon.
But then Pope, 23, has grown up playing cricket in an era when the ECB has pushed the county championship out to the damp, green margins of the season, diminishing the need for the spinners, and repeatedly penalised Somerset for producing turning wickets.
Root also wanted to talk about that pink ball, and the way the thick layer of plasticky lacquer meant it seemed to skip off the pitch. He thought that this was the reason so many wickets fell to balls that came straight on. The rest of them, of course, spun wickedly on a pitch that he described as “challenging” and all sorts of other diplomatic euphemisms.
Virat Kohli insisted, slightly mischievously, that he thought it was a good surface for batting on. He had a much better case in Chennai, but here in Ahmedabad the fact that 17 wickets fell in two sessions on just the second day spoke plenty, and the fact Root took five of them himself with his part-time off-spin even more.
Which of these reasons for the defeat had the most impact is a question everyone will answer according to their own pet prejudices. Everyone’s right when so much goes wrong. The ridiculous part is that the game moves on so quick that it likely won’t be long before England are back winning again – not, you’d guess, in the fourth Test which starts in seven days, but perhaps in the one-day and T20 series that follow. Or, if not, when they play New Zealand and India in Tests at home this summer.
When you have 17 Tests, two overseas tours, a World T20, and umpteen white-ball games to play, you don’t have much time to stop and think about things like this. Which makes you wonder whether, even if they could settle on exactly what had gone wrong, England would have time to try to fix it.