England not intimidated by spin

Just as a starving man probably doesn’t skip pudding, England weren’t going to miss out on the feast offered to them in Rajkot.

On the sort of pitch batsmen want to whisk to Paris for a weekend of romance, England took the opportunity to recover from the privations of Dhaka with a gluttonous display.

It wasn’t just the pitch, either. India put down at least five catchable chances, fumbled a run-out opportunity and, within the first two overs of the second day, had shepherded two balls to the boundary. By early afternoon Virat Kohli looked murderous and the bowlers – who generally deserved much better – looked bewildered. Really, India has been a marvellous host. Some of this fielding would have drawn chuckles from the Pakistan side at the 2015 World Cup.

But it would be a mistake not to credit England. For three men to score centuries in an innings – the first time England have done so since defeating Sri Lanka in Cardiff in 2011and the first time they have done so in India since 1961 – in a land where no visiting player has managed one once since 2013 deserves praise. As does becoming the first visiting team to make 500 in India since they did it in Kolkata in 2012.

But most of all, England made it clear – to themselves as much as anyone – they were not going to be intimidated by spin. Of course confidence was knocked by the Dhaka debacle. Of course there was some trepidation about facing the No.1 Test bowler at home. But they proved to themselves – and to India – that the last innings in Bangladesh was something of an aberration and that they had learned from the experience. Whether it leads to a win or not, England may look back on this first innings of this series as a psychological victory.

It is true that conditions later in the series – perhaps later in the game – will grow tougher. But England’s batsmen will face them boosted by the knowledge of this success. Instead of the doubts and demons that could have been planted by Dhaka, they face the next challenges with confidence high. These things matter.

It is entirely typical of this ‘new England’ that they took a bold response to their latest challenge. While previous England sides might have responded to such setbacks with a grimly determined display of defence – think of Abu Dhabi in 2012, when England’s openers took 15 overs for their first 21 runs and the side was bowled out for 72 in the fourth innings – England took every opportunity to attack India’s spinners.

It wasn’t just the fours and sixes. It was the general attitude that oozed a refusal to be intimidated. It was using the crease, using their feet, pushing the singles and being prepared to hit over the top. “We didn’t just prod around,” Moeen Ali said. “We used our feet and took the attacking option.”

R Ashwin, who went into the game rated the world’s best Test bowler and with a daunting recent record – he averaged 19.86 in Tests this year before this series – conceded more runs in an innings than at any time since Kolkata in 2012. Jonny Bairstow treated Amit Mishra so harshly it almost amounted to bullying.

Most of all, though, this was Ben Stokes’ day. Boosted by his greatly improved defence against spin – a feature that was first witnessed in Chittagong – Stokes now has the luxury of only needing to attack on merit. And when conditions are this favourable, when you have as many attacking options and as much strength as him, there is merit in much. His batting average this year is now 57.25 and his bowling average 19.80. It feels like a genuine breakthrough.

That credit for his success – and that of Moeen – extends beyond the team, too. It belongs, in part, to the management and selectors who have stuck with the pair through some lean times and have found a way to coax the best out of their very different talents and characters.

The key to getting the best out of both of them was making them feel valued. So, even when Stokes was injured, he was invited to spend time in the dressing room. And every time a member of the management has been asked about potential future leaders, Stokes has been mentioned. On days when he was dismissed playing horrid strokes – and there have been a few (Grenadasprings to mind) – the management has been careful not to criticise him in public and continued to praise his aggressive style while working quietly on adding some sophistication to his game.

It is probably no coincidence that all three of Stokes’ previous Test innings against India were ducks and that they were made batting at No. 8 or No.9. Given the responsibility of batting at No. 6, given the ostentatious vote of confidence in his ability, he has responded with increasingly polished and mature performances. He now averages 41.88 in the position. Every day, in every way, the management has helped develop his talent while encouraging his responsibility. You wonder how good the likes of Graeme Hick or Mark Ramprakash might have been had they benefited from such management.

It is a similar story with Moeen. Largely wasted at No. 8, he had started to lose belief in himself as a batsman. He talked of feeling embarrassed with some of the shots he played and started to bat like a useful tail-ender (he averaged 28.06 in the position) rather than the richly talented thoroughbred he had always been previously.

In a previous age, the selectors would have given up on him. Instead they moved him to No. 7 for the English summer and he responded with two centuries. This, his third Test century in six months, giving him an average of 45.86 batting at Nos. 5, 6 or 7 in Test cricket.

“I used to go out and almost give my wicket away sometimes,” he said. “But the last few months, I have tried to bat like a No. 3 and really taken the responsibility of a batsman.

“It’s very important Ben and I feel very important to the team. And when I was batting at No. 7 or 8, I forgot the time I need to bat. I forgot about scoring singles and proper batting mentality.

“Since I’ve come to No.5, I feel like I can go back to that now and try to bat a long time. It’s a change of mentality. My aim is to bat 200 balls, and if I do that I’ll score a hundred. I feel I’ve got my batting back to where I want it to be.

“I enjoy those kind of situations when we’re struggling a little bit. I feel it brings out the best in me. Obviously it doesn’t always come off, but it gets me into the zone.”

If there is any criticism of the England performance – and any complaint must sound like a spoiled child at Christmas demanding a pony even as they unwrap their new bicycle – you do wonder if they might look back and regret not keeping India in the field for another session. There was a period after lunch when India were visibly flagging under a mercilessly hot sun (at one stage a pigeon fainted in the press box and fell to a feathery end in a fan, though some suggested its broken left wing was a comment on American politics) and England, instead of grinding out a total of 600, opted to thrash runs as quickly as possible. As a result, Bairstow and Adil Rashid fell to selfless but soft dismissals and India had a chance to bat after tea.

Usually that would be a perfectly reasonable tactic. But on this surface? It remains good for batsmen for now. But there were just a few signs – Moeen turned two balls prodigiously – that it will grow far more difficult. It might, therefore, have made sense to keep India’s batsmen from using it until it had deteriorated a little more. First-innings runs will surely be far easier to score than second innings.

But that is a minor quibble at the end of an excellent couple of days for England. After the way the Bangladesh tour ended, they could hardly have dreamed of better.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo


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