India entered the series with their strongest ever pace bowling attack and despite the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah at the start of the series, had enough firepower to take 20 wickets relatively cheaply.
England won the second Test at Lord’s by an innings effectively inside two days while India bounced back in the third at Trent Bridge as they won by 203 runs. The series boiled down to two close games – the first Test in Birmingham and the fourth at Southampton. And this is where India’s growing problem came to the fore.
While India’s batting has become increasingly dependent on captain Virat Kohli to score runs in tough conditions, the team has also made it a habit of failing to chase down achievable targets in the fourth innings.
India in chases this year:— Bharath Seervi (@SeerviBharath) September 2, 2018
Cape Town: Target 208 -- 135/10
Centurion: Target 287 -- 151/10
Edgbaston: Target 194 -- 162/10
Southampton: Target 245 -- 184/10#EngvInd
In the last five years, the team has squandered four golden opportunities to register wins away from home.
The first instance came in the 2015 Galle Test when India were set a target of 176 on a dry pitch. Sri Lanka, led by spin veteran Rangana Herath’s 7-48, bowled out India for just 112 as a 63-run loss ensued for the visitors.
Then against South Africa at the beginning of this year, the Indians were set a challenging target of 208 in the first Test in Cape Town.
However, the Indians fell well short of the target as they were bowled out for 135 with Vernon Philander picking up six wickets in the second innings.
The trend continued in the five-Test series in England. In the first Test in Birmingham, India were set a gettable target of 194 on a pitch that was still good enough to bat on. But they could only manage 162 as they fell 31 runs short of the target with Ben Stokes picking up four wickets.
And then in the fourth Test in Southampton with the series on the line, India were asked to score 245 to level the series but were dismissed for 184 with off-spinner Moeen Ali picking up four.
In the last five years, India have failed to chase down targets of less than 250 on four occasions. Pakistan and South Africa have failed to do it twice while Australia and West Indies have been unable to do so once.
It goes to show that while India might still be the No1 Test team in the world, they are simply unable to chase down any sort of fourth-innings target.
In fact, the last time India chased down a target of more than 100 outside Asia was in 2003 against Australia.
India’s batsmen failed to chase down gettable targets during the first Test in Birmingham and the fourth in Southampton with England’s bowlers chipping in at just the right time to pull the match the hosts’ way. Seam bowling all-rounder Sam Curran was a revelation with the bat as he scored more than 250 runs while the returning Moeen Ali finished with nine wickets in match four to go with his first innings knock of 40.
For India, captain Virat Kohli piled on more than 500 runs in the series while his pacers were on the money pretty much every innings. But when the moment came to grab the initiative, India fell short.
There is never one factor that decides the result of a Test. But in the final essay the difference between Moeen & Ashwin proved to be the difference between the two sides.#ENGvIND— Sanjay Manjrekar (@sanjaymanjrekar) September 2, 2018
One area that will hurt Team India particularly is the performance of Ravi Ashwin in the fourth Test. It was a wicket that was tailor-made for the ace off-spinner. The pitch in Southampton was dry and big roughs were created on both sides of the pitch by the second day itself.
When Moeen Ali bowled in India’s first innings, he got the ball to spin sharply from the rough and got appreciable bounce. He managed to beat batsmen in the air and off the pitch, snaring five quality Test wickets.
The hope was that Ashwin would go one better, especially after India managed to sneak in a 27-run lead and England were reduced to 92-4 and 122-5 in the second essay.
Moeen Ali upstaging him on this pitch so comprehensively will rankle Ravi Ashwin more than it does his fans I would like to think— Cricketwallah (@cricketwallah) September 2, 2018
Even as the pitch deteriorated and the ball exploded off the surface, Ashwin failed to land the ball consistently at one place, forget beat the inside or outside edge of the bat.
The manner in which he celebrated the wicket of Ben Stokes showed he was relieved at getting a wicket at last. However, more than 37 overs for 84 runs and one wicket was simply not good enough in a surface where Moeen picked up nine in the match.
When England pace ace James Anderson got ideal bowling conditions in the second Test at Lord’s he decimated the Indian line-up twice to bowl them out for 107 and 130 with nine in the match, no questions asked. Top performers raise their game when the team needs them and especially when the conditions suit them. Anderson did, Ashwin didn’t.
Ashwin was probably carrying an injury from the third Test. In that case, he should not have played the fourth Test and his spot should have gone to Ravindra Jadeja who is guaranteed to pick up quick wickets on helpful surfaces.
This isn’t the first time Ashwin has failed to make the most of a helpful surface. Against the same opposition in the 2012 Test in Mumbai, the Indians had amassed 327 in the first innings on a pitch that was already breaking up. But instead of strangling the life out of England with India 1-0 up in the series, he bowled 42.3 overs for two wickets and 145 runs as Kevin Pietersen hit arguably the greatest century by a visiting batsman in India. England won the match and went on to win the series.
Ashwin doesn’t have any major series wins outside Asia under his belt and that puts him below England off-spinner Graeme Swann in the history books.
Ashwin has 327 wickets from 62 Tests while Swann has 255 from 60. But Swann was star of the show in two of England’s greatest Test series wins in contemporary cricket.
Swann picked up 20 wickets – the joint-most in the series – as England won the 2012 Test series in India. He took 15 wickets from five Tests as England tasted Ashes glory Down Under in 2010/11.
Both were exemplary efforts in tough conditions that should put Swann ahead of Ashwin in Test hierarchy.
Moreover, Ashwin has tinkered with his action and bowling style throughout his career. He has brought in many variations, the ‘carrom ball’ and recently even switched to leg-spin to revive his white-ball career. In between all this, there hasn’t been a long-enough spell of pure off-spin bowling season after season.
Swann, on the other hand, stayed true to his art and started his Test career at the age of 28. So while the record book will show Ashwin as the more successful off-spinner in Tests, it’s Swann who has had a greater impact on the narrative.
India fast bowler Mohammed Siraj has been in sensational form with the red ball this season. He has consistently been among the top wicket-takers in the domestic circuit and also in international matches with the ‘A’ team. The Hyderabad pacer is quickly gaining a reputation as a long-term Test prospect and he strengthened that belief with another super effort against Australia ‘A’.
Playing the unofficial Test for India ‘A’ in Bengaluru, Siraj snared 8-59 against the Aussies as the Indians restricted the visitors to 243 in the first innings after they were well-placed at 204-4 at one stage.
He picked up one more wicket in the second innings by stumps on day two on Monday, with nine Australian wickets left.
It has been a superb year for the 24-year-old. In the last five first-class matches, Siraj has picked up an incredible 38 wickets against top teams. There is still one more innings to go against Australia ‘A’ and one of the five matches – against South Africa ‘A’ – had just one bowling innings.
Meanwhile in India, Mohammad Siraj has taken 8 wickets in an outstanding spell of fast bowling for India A against Australia A. 8/59 , he has been bowling quite impressively in recent times.— Mohammad Kaif (@MohammadKaif) September 2, 2018
Siraj picked up eight wickets against the West Indies ‘A’ in England in July, seven against the England Lions, 10 against South Africa ‘A’ in Bengaluru and four in one innings against the same opposition.
With nine wickets already in the bag against the Aussies, Siraj is forcing the selectors to pick him for red-ball assignments later in the year.
Siraj has played three T20 matches for India and was unimpressive in them, going for over 12 an over. But it’s red ball cricket where he thrives. His first-class record now stands at 95 wickets from 20 matches which comes to around five per match which is brilliant for a subcontinent pacer.