MS Dhoni on his way to The Ageas Bowl one-up in the series
Alastair Cook (298 runs at 50; 1 wicket at 6) – The captain-batsman who won the Ashes and the Pataudi Trophy before turning thirty finally turned up to silence the doubters and cement his place in both roles for the foreseeable future. Or did he? Once the Lord’s debacle was done, there was more energy in the field, more evidence of planning, more of the showy side of leadership that impresses impressionable fans and gives journalists something to write about. But there were also the extraordinary ovations that rolled round The Ageas Bowl, a spontaneous demonstration of England supporters’ respect, even love, for a man they felt unfairly maligned. It affected him: it affected me and I was behind glass in the Media Centre, insulated and distant. From that moment, the downward trajectory of his captaincy was arrested and he looked, once more, a leader of men – indeed, he looked like the leader his men wanted, which is 90% of Test captaincy right there. His batting isn’t quite back, but he has worked hard on getting forward, transferring the weight and playing positively and the runs (aided by a combination of luck and dismal Indian slipping) have begun to flow. He will have learned much from this summer: the same goes for his hasty critics.
Sam Robson (165 runs at 24) – Does he know where his off stump is? Not now he doesn’t, otherwise he would not have had so painful a series, nicking off and being bowled. But it’s hard for a new Test batsman to get out of a rut in today’s absurdly compressed schedules with no room to drop a notch to the county game and work through a problem. Since he doesn’t play international white ball cricket, Robson should seek out as much red ball cricket as he can get anywhere in the world this winter and bat and bat and bat. It’s weight of runs that got him into the side and it’s weight of runs that will keep him in the side. I’d take him to the Caribbean in April, but he must perform there or it’s time to look at Alex Hales.
Gary Ballance (503 runs at 72) – At Number Three, it’s all about output and the left-handed shuffler delivers plenty (and it would have been even more had he a little more fortune with the series long erratic umpiring). Traditionalists say that batting is about watching the ball, playing it late and attacking the good ones while defending the bad ones – so far so good for Ballance. But those same batting gurus do not advocate a trigger movement that is almost a walk and feet so deep that a forward defensive is played from barely over the crease. But batting cannot be reduced to diagrams or algorithms – methods are gloriously individual (are Shiv Chanderpaul and Mark Waugh even of the same species?) If the technique holds up against the hostility and craft that lie in wait in the ranks of Australia, South Africa and Pakistan (and New Zealand’s bowlers are no mugs), England’s Number Three slot is locked down for a decade, as the temperament and attitude (and catching) are exemplary.
Ian Bell (297 runs at 42) – Apart from a crucial knock in the innings at The Ageas Bowl that turned the series England’s way, a quiet series from the man who lit up Summer 2013. Still doing his old trick of batting like a dream until you look up and find him walking off just when you think his bat is all middle with no edge at all. Hardly needed as the youngsters flayed the runs that led to three huge victories, but there will be tougher days to come in which a five hour occupation will be worth infinitely more than a diverting cameo.
Joe Root (518 runs at 104, 1 wicket at 33) – Got in and cashed in, England’s Golden Boy back in the saddle with the Mitchell Johnson nightmare fading into the distance. His key strength is his appreciation of the requirements of an innings: he can build partnerships, he can dig in and he can accelerate, each moment of a Test’s potential 30+ hours instinctively understood (which bodes well for his eventual captaincy claims). Unlike fellow Yorkie Gary Ballance (whose technique is the same from first ball to last), Root’s hanging back in the crease early in his innings is more a flaw, since, once in, his foot movement becomes much more deliberate and his security improves as a result. If he can play his first hour at the crease as he plays his second, he will score big runs against all attacks.
Moeen Ali (124 runs at 21; 19 wickets at 23) – A failure at Number 6, but a magnificent unexpected success as front line spinner. The batting was much like Ian Bell’s (without Bell’s big ton) – lovely to look at then suddenly gone, too often as a result of a short ball attack that will have been spotted by Mitchell Johnson and Morne Morkel. The batting may come good in Tests, though whether he is a deluxe Number 8 rather than a genuine Number 6 remains to be seen. But the bowling! Who saw that coming? Learning quickly (yes, an England player learning quickly!) he found the slightly quicker pace that limits batsmen’s options while still allowing the ball to dip, turn and bounce. Moreover, as is vital for a spinner, he has a bit of character about him, a crowd favourite posing for selfies after a win and handling the wristband controversy with shoulder-shrugging dignity. Still bowls a few four balls – but only Glenn McGrath and Joel Garner didn’t.
Jos Buttler (200 runs at 67; 11 catches) – He’ll have tougher assignments in the future and pay higher prices for the occasional untidiness behind the stumps, but what a start the batsman-keeper has made. The crack of the bat hitting the balll reminds me of Adam Gilchrist and the unclouded mind recalls Virender Sehwag’s famous “See Ball. Hit Ball” mantra that should be given to every Number 7 in the game. The keeping has room for improvement, but it’s not bad, and the likes of Matt Prior and Alec Stewart have shown that hard work with the gloves pays off, especially for such a natural athlete. But that ball striking – wow!
Chris Woakes (33 runs at 33; 5 wickets at 43) – Earned his place with consistency and pace as a new ball bowler at Warwickshire, but has been asked to play the third seamer role for England – and is yet to convince. His pace allayed any doubts about lack of nip, indeed he often looked the quickest option available, if not the most hostile, being a “pitch it up” rather than a “bang it in” man. Joins a roster of back-up bowlers for England’s Big Two and can expect to be in and out of the side as conditions and rotation demands. No opportunity to show off his classy batting.
Chris Jordan (33 runs at 17; 10 wickets at 22) – A legacy of an injury-blighted development in the game, his bowling looks like he learned it phonetically, but when he gets it right, he can take wickets with pace, swing and seam. There will be days – spells – when it’s not synching and a captain has to recognise that and withdraw him, with the assurance that he’ll be back. Another good option for the back-up seamer squad, but probably needs to play in a five man attack.
Stuart Broad (108 runs at 27; 19 wickets at 23) – Like his new ball partner, he started the series looking a little jaded, hoping for something to happen rather than making something happen, possibly distracted by too flat a pitch at Trent Bridge and too green a pitch at Lord’s. Once it clicked, he found the line and length that troubles all batsmen in England, seeking the outside edge for the slip cordon and the inside edge for the bowled and bat-pad. His partnership with Jimmy Anderson is a fine example of cricket rewarding complementary skills – as evidenced by England’s bowling records slowly being overhauled.
Jimmy Anderson (112 runs at 22; 25 wickets at 21) – After two relatively low key Tests (excepting that extraordinary 81 at Trent Bridge), the talk was of workloads, burn out, the hangover from The Ashes thrashing. Three Tests later, the talk is of Ian Botham’s Test wickets record, nonpareil skills with the ball and Man of the Series Awards. Swing is always a capricious partner, but once it returned (with, it must be said, an energy in the delivery stride that cannot be unrelated to anger at the mid-series disciplinary hearing and, one hopes, a new willingness to let the ball do the talking) there was no answer to movement either way provoked by undetectable finger pressure at the point of release. Batsmen who had spent April and May on the greentops of Haslingden and Accrington playing Lancashire League cricket would have struggled against such craft: those who spent April and May playing in the Indian Premier League at Kolkata and Delhi had no chance.
Matt Prior (40 runs at 13; 12 catches) – Brad Haddin came back, but it seems unlikely that Matt Prior will do the same, regardless of the result of his operation. He could easily play at least five more seasons for Sussex and will be guaranteed of a warm reception everywhere, as fans recall his years of service, unsoured by his last 18 months of struggle. I hope he does.
Ben Stokes (0 runs at 0; 7 wickets at 33) – Literally couldn’t buy a run, but showed promise bowling with something of Andrew Flintoff’s strong arm pace, if not yet his swing. Another useful addition as a seam bowling option, but probably never going to be one of the best six batsmen available to England, so might have a future at 8 or as an alternative to Moeen Ali at 6 if five seamers looks like the right composition for the bowling unit.
Liam Plunkett (69 runs at 69; 7 wickets at 41) – Hit the pitch hard and was especially hostile round the wicket to right-handers, he will be useful option (one hopes alongside Steven Finn) when fire needs to be met with fire.
(Rather than assess each individual Indian player – which might be unduly cruel and repetitive – each component of the game is assessed below).
If India intend (rather than hope) to win Tests outside the subcontinent with anything like the regularity that their resources would suggest, Indian batsmanship will have to change, maybe even be re-invented. Playing through the line, following the ball or going with hard hands simply will not work, notwithstanding the talent of the man doing so. The willingness to bat for sessions at a time, when every ball is a challenge, by adhering to the old nostrums of leaving balls on a fifth stump line, defending with a straight bat and earning the right to hit boundaries, must return to the heart of the batting unit’s play.
If MS Dhoni showed fight in raging against the scoreboard’s sorry tales and Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane the technique to succeed in less than ideal batting conditions, it’s a sad indictment that two bowlers (Ravichandran Ashwin and Bhuvneswar Kumar) looked the most likely to make runs purely because they were the most orthodox batsmen. England bowled well, but not as well as India’s batting suggested – and if you don’t make the opposition work hard for your wicket, you really shouldn’t be in the side.
Bhuvi Kumar was excellent, bowling lovely lines with a craftsman’s control of swing and seam, but at 24 with only six Tests behind him at the start of the series, Ishant Sharma’s injury demanded too much of him and he faded as his team subsided. Beyond those two pacers, it’s almost impossible to believe that India could come up with nothing better than Varun Aaron’s potential, Ravi Ashwin’s inexplicably underused spin and other bowlers who would be lucky to get a gig in county cricket. Is Pragyan Ojha, experienced in English conditions, really not good enough for this squad?
Captaincy and fielding -
MS Dhoni will retire as a great of Indian cricket, a player of enormous self-belief and resilience, a man who did what was asked of him. But the ideas and the concentration demanded of a captain, seemed to be exhausted once the tide turned at The Ageas Bowl. Did he lead the fielding effort as a wicket-keeper must? Did he have the right bowlers on at the right times? Did he balance attack and defence correctly as England’s innings progressed? Well, history is written by the winners and not many series-losing captains could answer those questions in the affirmative, so maybe that’s a little unfair.
The harsher indictment of Dhoni’s captaincy is that he let India drift into a shambles, fulfilling an old description once (notoriously incorrectly) given to an England Ashes squad – “Can’t bat. Can’t bowl. Can’t field.” With a drawn series still a possibility at The Oval, India barely provided opposition worthy of the name, denying millions of fans a team of which they could at least say, “Our lads gave it everything – but it wasn’t enough.” Dhoni has earned the right to stay on to defend the World Cup he played such a key role in winning, but surely he will go after that, leaving a huge job for his successor – at least in the five day format, especially overseas.