India defeated England comfortably by a margin of an innings and 25 runs in the last Test to clinch the four-match series 3-1. This victory also takes India to the top of the pool of the World Test Championship, with 72.2 percentage points. They will face New Zealand, placed at second position in the pool stage with 70 points, in the final which will be held at England in June. To reach the finals, India had to ensure winning the series against England, which they did in style, coming back strongly after losing the first match at Chennai.
England side that lost the last three Tests meekly, was a far cry from the confident bunch who won the first match at Chennai by 227 runs. This surprise defeat had shocked the hosts, who were on a high after winning a hard-fought series in Australia, overcoming difficulties posed due to absence of top players due to injury. The Indian team management went into an overdrive preparing pitches that suited spin bowlers, traditionally considered as the strong point of the hosts. This also helped to blunt the pace attack of visitors, besides keeping their batsmen, who were not used to playing on these surfaces, tied up in knots. The result was that England lost the second Test by 317 runs and the third match by 10 wickets, before crashing to an innings defeat in the last game.
One interesting sidelight of these encounters was that the second Test got over on the morning of fourth day, the third game was completed in less than two days and the last match finished during the last session of the third day. The early finish of the third Test brought out howls of protests from press contingent accompanying the side from London about the pitch, which they felt was underprepared and not fit for playing international cricket. But the meek surrender of the visitors in the last Test, where their second innings lasted a mere 54.5 overs, indicates that there is more to the defeat than the pitch alone.
What went wrong with England after their victory in the first Test? It is a fact that they were spooked about the pitches, a fact that played on their mind. India had the worse of conditions in the first Test, where the brilliant double hundred by Joe Root put England firmly on the path to victory. This was reversed in the second game, where India seized the initiative in the same manner through a century by Rohit Sharma in the first innings and Ravichandran Aswin in the second. Thus, the honours were even at the end of the first two games, where the sides batting first capitalised on this advantage to record facile wins.
The twist in the plot happened during the third Test at Ahmedabad, which was played as a day-night game, using a pink ball. Here England had the good fortune of batting first and after getting skittled out for a low score, they even managed to restrict India to a narrow lead in the first innings. But they collapsed badly while batting second, thus gifting the match to India on a platter. It would appear that the scars inflicted by this low score in the second innings and the loss in under two days was so bad that the team did not have the heart to put up much of a fight in the last Test.
Such developments are not uncommon in international cricket. During the ill-fated tour of England in 1974, India, under Ajit Wadekar, had fared decently in the first Test, losing the game only in the last hour, during the mandatory overs, by a margin of 113 runs. But the side collapsed for a total of 42 in the second innings of the next match at Lord's, which completely deflated the team. During the last Test at Birmingham, Indians only went through the motions scoring a mere165 and 216 on an easy-paced pitch, while England ran up a total of 459, losing only two wickets. For the record, this game also got over inside three days.
In the just-concluded Test at Ahmedabad, England managed to reach a total of 205 runs in the first innings, helped by half-century by Ben Stokes. But it was obvious that they were looking for the devil in the pitch, which hampered their entire approach to the game. When India batted, their bowlers did well to push the home side to the ropes when the sixth wicket fell with only 146 runs on board. At this juncture, it appeared that the visitors might manage to stay in the game by taking a narrow lead in the first innings. But they were baulked by a superb century by Rishabh Pant (101 off 118 balls) and a fighting unbeaten knock of 96 by Washington Sundar. The last four wickets together added 219 runs, thus knocking out whatever little fight was remaining inside the England camp.
This loss of morale was all too evident when England batted in the second innings. They lost their top four batsmen within the first 14 overs and their total score was only 65 when their sixth wicket, that of Root, fell. It was only a gritty half-century by Dan Lawrence that helped them save the blushes of being dismissed for a two digit score. The final tally of 135 runs stood as clear testimony to the dejection and depression that had set in the ranks of the visitors. It was a meek surrender.
While watching the England innings unravelling, one’s memory went back to another Test match played in India 37 years ago. West indies under Clive Lloyd were touring India, seeking to extract revenge for the shock defeat suffered by them in the finals of Prudential World Cup in June, 1983. India lost the first and third Tests, while managing a draw in the second and fourth matches. In the fifth Test at Kolkata, India, after being dismissed for 241 runs in the first innings, struck back strongly to reduce the visitors to 213/8 when Andy Roberts joined Clive Lloyd at the crease. This duo shared a 161-run stand for the ninth wicket, propelling the West Indies to a total of 377. India did not have their heart in the game after this and collapsed to a total score just 90 in their second innings, thus losing the Test by an innings and 46 runs. This defeat was solely due to the fight evaporating from the Indians on account of the spirited performance of the West Indian tail in the company of skipper Lloyd.
One cannot help but think that the fate that befell on England at Ahmedabad during the last Test of the series was a combination of what India had faced at Birmingham in 1974 and at Kolkata in 1983. The visitors were so disheartened and dismayed at the turn of events after the first Test that they gave up without much fight. And when a small semblance of resolve appeared on the horizon, it was snuffed out by Pant and Sundar, along with Axar Patel. After this the side just folded up, acting only too eager to end the game and delete all thoughts about it from their memory and collective conscience.
This Test series will not go down in the annals of the game as one of the best played in our country. But it will remain in the minds of followers of the game and the players for reaffirming the eternal truth that a game is played as much in the mind as on the playing fields. Posterity will remember this as a series that England gave up in their minds after the first Test. Had they retained their resolve and bulldoggish tenacity, the end result might have been different as the skillsets that separated the two sides were neither vast nor very significant.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)