|Ishant Sharma celebrates a dismissal, at The Oval, on Saturday
London: Marshalled by Joe Root, who hit his unbeaten 92 off only 129 balls, England scored 329 runs on the second day of the final Test — enough to bury India, quite likely by an innings as they did in the fourth, and take the series 3-1.
Root came in at 203 for three and saw England through to the close on another of their satisfying days, which have been uninterrupted since India’s victory at Lord’s. If it was not quite a captain’s innings, it was an heir apparent’s, which Root will aim to convert into his fifth Test century before the final rites.
It would be excessive optimism though to believe that England are anything more than mid-table at this stage of their evolution.
There may well be something rotten in the state of Indian cricket, if the allegations about match-fixing in the IPL are proven and, what is more, published. For certain there is something shoddy, given the indecisiveness of India’s batting, the inaccuracy of their pace bowlers on a relatively grassy pitch for in Oval Test, the poor slip-catching — Alastair Cook was dropped twice at first slip — and the inexcusable no-balling, 10 donations swelling England’s lead to 237 with three wickets left.
While Sam Robson is the only specialist batsman whose place is in doubt, England’s batting overall is long rather than strong and in the last two Tests has been rather too dependent on Root and Jos Buttler and their hard-running, young-buck rallies.
Gary Ballance has settled in admirably at No 3, and his 64 was flawless so far as it went. To date he has scored 729 Test runs at 60, but this season he has not been subjected to the short-pitched bowling which made his Test debut in Sydney unsuccessful.
Ian Bell has yet to settle into the No 4 position. It was an unplayable, kicking ball that he received from Ishant Sharma, and Bell was good enough to get a touch, but the statistic remains that he has only once reached 70 in the position vacated by Kevin Pietersen.
Cook’s tenacity remains intact in spite of all he has endured this summer, which is a wonderful feat in itself. He toughed it out until England were 43 runs ahead, and the series victory — so much in question after the defeat at Lord’s — all but sealed.
But Cook could be said to have had four innings in one. In the first of them, on day one, he should have been given leg-before to Bhuvneshwar Kumar for nine. In the second he scored 56 before being dropped by Murali Vijay at first slip off Aaron. In the third he scored six before being dropped at slip off Ashwin, and in the fourth he scored eight before Vijay made amends.
Initially Cook bent his front knee and got his head over the ball when playing his checked off-drives, but he became less and less fluent as his innings wore on — until his fatal stroke was the old stab in the dark, head behind his front knee. If the greatest skill of a Test batsman is to score ugly runs when out of touch, it would still be nice for Cook and his supporters if he could make some handsome ones again.
In their second-wicket stand, Cook and Ballance were helped by Ishant bowling so wide of offstump that they seldom had to play.
Ravichandran Ashwin seemed to be trusted too little by his captain, as he has been all summer, although he did his job in dismissing two lefthanders: Ballance when he pushed to silly mid-off, Moeen Ali when he was bowled in the act of withdrawing his bat. But Varun Aaron was the pick of India’s bowlers, until Dhoni switched him just after a long spell at the pavilion end and shot his bolt.
At 229 for five — not out of sight — England had to rally again, which Root and Buttler did in their best cricket of the day. Not only the batting but the approach and vitality of these two 23 year-olds gives England so much encouragement for the long-term future, whatever next summer’s results. They combine the best of both worlds, looking like traditional English cricketers and running between wickets like moderns, with an array of strokes to match.
This series, therefore, reinforces the trend in Test cricket of the last 20 years. Five-Test series are impossible for the visiting side to win except if they are vastly stronger than the hosts.
Moeen Ali’s batting has regressed during this series, just as the Indian batting has. But his bad run at No 6 has been offset by Buttler coming into the team for the last three Tests and feeling confident on the basis of averaging 40 in red-ball cricket for Lancashire.
In the last 20 years, out of 27 five-Test series, 20 have been won by the home side and two have been shared. Of the remaining five, Australia won the Ashes series in England in 1997 and 2001 — naturally enough, having Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne — while South Africa won in the West Indies when the hosts had plummeted from their peak, in 2000-1.
England can claim the other two exceptions to this rule, firstly when they won in South Africa in 2004-5, although their 2-1 victory owed much to South Africa's selectors choosing their team for the first Test on the basis of politics rather than merit.
Their second away win in a five-Test series was in Australia in 2010-11: all the more reason to regard it as one of England's finest hours as it bucked this dominant trend.
Whether Australia can succeed next summer where India have failed - in England in a five-Test series - is the great unknown. At least England, having gone backwards in early summer, are moving now in the right direction, and at a pleasing speed. To close the gap with Australia, however, the first essential is pace above 90 mph — that of Steve Finn, or Tymal Mills, or perhaps both.