Monday, 30th October 2017

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Routing England

Why home wins matter

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 2.01.17
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A happy cricketing question for the new year: where does this recent stuffing of England rank in India's Test match history over the last half century? The knowing take on this would be that it doesn't make the top six: the 2001 coup against Steve Waugh's Invincibles, the series win in England in 2007 with Rahul Dravid in charge, the 2004 hammering of Pakistan in Pakistan with Virender Sehwag playing Thor, the 1971 win in the West Indies asterisked by Sunil Gavaskar's monster debut, the 2-0 demolition of England in 1987 with Chetan Sharma as our unlikely battering ram, and the 4-0 savaging of the mighty Australians in 2013, arguably take precedence.

But the knowing take would be wrong. The importance of a series win isn't to be judged on the strength of cricketing achievement alone. Test cricket is a bilateral business. Over time, the contest between two countries becomes laden with the history of their meetings. Think of Test teams as old-fashioned armies with giant baggage trains and a rabble of camp followers. The actual fighting is just one part of the contest; the collective memory of victory and defeat is the big story that frames every battle. The fight for the Ashes is a good example of a storied past that makes even ordinary meetings between two sides resonant.

When M.J.K. Smith's tourists came to India in 1963-64, they played five Tests as was common at the time. Since the Marylebone Cricket Club didn't rate the Indians led by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, it sent a second eleven to play them. Ted Dexter, Tom Graveney, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham and Raymond Illingworth skipped the tour. Fred Titmus aside, the bowling 'attack' consisted of county workhorses with stunted Test careers. The galling thing was that the MCC was right: their second best was good enough; in home conditions India couldn't force a single win. Every match was drawn.

The '63-64 series was a prologue to half a century of inconclusive combat. India didn't figure largely in the MCC's cricketing calendar or in its imagination; Australia, South Africa and the resurgent West Indies were worthier foes. Between 1967 and 2016, the fortunes of the two sides converged as India became a more competitive cricketing nation and England plateaued. India and England had one thing in common through these fifty years: unlike the West Indies and Australia, neither country was good enough to dominate Test cricket. They were second-tier sides, capable of upsets, especially at home, but also prone to humiliating, demoralizing defeats.

England didn't know it then, but a little golden age of the Fifties was coming to an end. Statham, Trueman, Peter Loader, Frank Tyson, Jim Laker and Tony Lock had everything: speed, venom, accuracy and guile. England would never again have an attack as lethal and versatile as the one it had late in that decade. The Nawab of Pataudi was about to turn to an eccentric strategy centred on spin bowling regardless of match conditions, forced upon him by the extinction of Indian fast bowlers as a species.

These two middling sides did battle over the next 50 years. If we don't count the single Jubilee Test played in Bombay (which England won), the two sides played 22 series between the MCC tour of '63-64 and now, of which England won 11 and India 9 and two were drawn. Both countries generally won at home and lost away; India's touring sides won three times as did England's. India won away under Ajit Wadekar, Kapil Dev and Rahul Dravid in '71, '87 and 2007. England won in 1976-77, 1984 and then, after an interval of 28 years, in 2012.

That 28-year gap is worth mentioning because Indian teams have a reputation for being tigers in their backyard and pussies abroad. This is especially true of the way in which India's home wins against England are framed: dustbowl triumphs devalued by routs on English turf. This self-awareness amongst Indian cricketers, commentators and journalists about the need to win in all conditions is admirable, but in the absence of context it can become a form of self-flagellation.

English teams win in India as rarely as Indian teams do in England. The difference is that Indians put their failures down to not being good enough (at playing the moving ball, or coping with bouncers) while the English attribute their touring defeats to the peculiar rigours of the East. These are various: the slow turners rigged in favour of the home team, the heat, the dust, the bugs and, till Imran Khan put that alibi out of its misery, the umpires. Jimmy Anderson didn't contribute much to the cricket this last series, but he did supply a useful example of English unselfconsciousness. Asked his opinion about Virat Kohli's evolution as a batsman, Anderson replied that his technical defects had been masked by friendly pitches. It didn't occur to Anderson that his toothlessness in India suggested that his own success could be ungenerously credited to home conditions tailor-made to his style of bowling.

This lack of self-awareness, this willingness to attribute defeat to hostile alien environments, has a long colonial pedigree unrelated to cricket. Right through the 19th century, for example, the raj's doctors saw epidemic disease in India as a menace built into a diseased landscape. Outbreaks of plague, cholera and malaria were laid at the door of swampy soils and tropical humidity that created unhealthy miasmas. Ignorant of the carriers of contagion, they blamed the place itself. Anderson mightn't have known it, but in attributing England's failure to contain Kohli to the terrain, he was heir to a great tradition of vilayati whingeing.

This 4-0 blanking of England is 'yuge' because the balance of power in Indo-English encounters is founded on home advantage. Hideous as the hammerings of 2011 (4-0) and 2014 (3-1) were, they happened on tour, which is par for the course for this rivalry. English touring sides, likewise, lose routinely in India. Mohammad Azharuddin's men blanked Graham Gooch's team in three Tests out of three in '92-93; two of these were innings defeats. Winning at home, sometimes emphatically, isn't a substitute for winning away, but it makes for parity. It's when India loses at home against England that the bottom falls out of the contest. The real problem with the touring routs of 2011 and 2014 was that sandwiched in between them was a four-Test home series that England won 2-1.

So, when the English embarked on their tour in November, they were coming off a run of three consecutive series wins against India. More importantly, this was Alastair Cook's second tour of India as captain, having pulled off a rare triumph in his first. The Indians weren't just beaten, they were beaten at their own game: Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar spun them to defeat in Mumbai and then in Calcutta. Dhoni's record as captain against England is dire (four wins, three draws and nine losses) but his loss at home to English spinners was a kind of nadir.

Had the 2016 series gone the way of the first Test, where England had the better of a drawn match, it would have consolidated a little era of English dominance both home and away. Worse, it would have put paid to a half-century long narrative of alternation, where defeat abroad was redressed by victory at home. But that didn't happen.

Aamir Khan couldn't have scripted a sequel to Lagaan more satisfying than this series. Three of England's victorious 2012 tourists, Anderson, Joe Root and Cook, were at hand to suffer this 4-0 mauling. Kohli and Ravi Jadeja came back from demoralizing failure in England to play starring roles in this victory at home. Ravichandran Ashwin, who had been a member of the team that had lost at home in 2012 to English spin, restored the natural order of things by bowling India to victory in the manner of great desi spinners past. The topping on this quadruple sundae was Karun Nair's triple century, which set up England for an unlikely innings defeat at Chennai. It was an Obelixian pounding, a comic book climax of the sort that René Goscinny might have written had his Gauls played cricket.

There may well come a time when Indian teams begin to win regularly abroad. Home wins in this world will rank lower than hard-fought victories in unfamiliar conditions. But till that kingdom comes, domestic demolitions as comprehensive as this one should vault straight to the top of Indian cricket's greatest hits.

mukulkesavan@hotmail.com