Who's to blame?

India’s away Test series against England ended abruptly last week, without a ball being bowled at Old Trafford, amidst great disputation and controversy. But before we get into the merits of the case, a few words about the cricket that was played may be in order. In the last couple of decades, there has been one significant change in Test cricket. Most matches tend to end in a result; there are few draws. This has helped considerably in keeping Test cricket’s head above the water. So it was in the series played in England. Three of the matches ended in exciting results, the v.....
India’s away Test series against England ended abruptly last week, without a ball being bowled at Old Trafford, amidst great disputation and controversy. But before we get into the merits of the case, a few words about the cricket that was played may be in order.

In the last couple of decades, there has been one significant change in Test cricket. Most matches tend to end in a result; there are few draws. This has helped considerably in keeping Test cricket’s head above the water. So it was in the series played in England. Three of the matches ended in exciting results, the visitors winning the ties at the Lords and the Oval and the hosts at Headingley.

The first Test at Trent Bridge ended in a draw only because the last day’s play was completely washed out with India poised to win the match. They needed to get 157 runs with nine wickets in hand at the end of the fourth day’s play. The score going into the doomed Old Trafford Test could, thus, well have been 3-1 in favour of India. Absent the controversy, India were clearly the dominant side.

 
But the series once again exposed a serious problem with the Indian side: The fragility of the middle order. The three players who are supposed to hold it together — captain Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane — all failed to show up. Kohli scored 218 runs in four Tests at an average of just over 31. Though he was India’s fourth biggest run-getter, what was evident was that the skipper was failing to build on fluent starts. He failed to get a century, extending his drought to almost two years. Kohli has now decided to step down from the T20 captaincy to focus more on leading the team in Tests and One-day internationals (ODIs).

Pujara totalled 227 runs at an average of 32.42, but like Kohli failed to get a century or really leave his mark on the series. Rahane, demoted for obscure reasons to number six in the batting order in the fourth Test, fared the worst, getting 109 runs at an average of 15.57. Given that wicket-keeper-batsman Rishabh Pant didn’t really contribute either, the selectors have some hard choices before them.

What saved the day for India was fine bowling performances from all the pacers and the lone spinner played in the series, Ravindra Jadeja, and more than useful contributions from the lower-order batsmen. The selectors’ hardest call will be about whether to retain Kohli as captain in ODIs or make Rohit Sharma the captain for both the abbreviated formats. Sharma’s scintillating form and his thoughtful demeanour makes this option quite attractive.

So, back to the controversy of the abandoned fifth Test at Old Trafford, which could have made a difference to the final outcome of the series and to which team got the Pataudi Trophy. As things stand, India took it. But a win for England would have squared the series, and the hosts would have retained the trophy.

Just to refresh memories, a recital of the basic facts leading to the abandonment. Just before the commencement of the final Test, a number of key members of the Indian entourage tested positive in sequence. Among them were team head coach Ravi Shastri and bowling coach B Arun. The senior physio Nitin Patel had to isolate. And just ahead of the match, Patel’s assistant, Yogesh Parmar, who had been working with the players in close physical proximity, tested positive.

This prompted the Indian players to decide against playing on the night before the match was to commence, even though they had all tested negative. This latter fact was used by a number of commentators as a stick with which to beat both the Indian players and the Board of Control for Cricket in India. But the focus on the negative tests misses several points.

First, given the players’ proximity with Parmar there was no guarantee that one or more players would not start showing the symptoms during the course of the match. Covid-19 has a gestation period. Second, does a single one of the Indian players’ critics seriously expect a team to go into a five-day cricket match without a single physio being available to work with them? Apart from ongoing conditioning, players pick up injuries and niggles that need attention.

The demand that the final Test be recorded as conceded by India, thus squaring the series, rather than postponed or abandoned, is thus unfair. It would also fail to reflect the Indian team’s overwhelming superiority in the series.

Much has been made of the Indian players’ eagerness to play in the Indian Premier League as the most important factor leading to the abandonment. But that is a problem of scheduling that affects all teams and for which all national boards and the International Cricket Council must cop equal responsibility.


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