Team India: Consistent only in inconsistency

There is something so predictable about Indian cricket: A lip-smacking high followed by an abysmal low. The age-old story replicated itself at the Ageas Bowl as India lost the third test by 266 runs, squandering six wickets on the final morning for just 68 runs.

With this, England has leveled the five-match series with aplomb at 1-1, which at least compromises, if not completely jeopardizes, India’s strong hold over the series. Incidentally, this was England’s first Test win since they beat Australia at Durham last August, thereby ending a parched run of 10 Tests without victory.

Indian coach Duncan Fletcher had expressed the view that India’s capitulation from positions of strength in South Africa and New Zealand was an outcome of overconfidence that bordered on complacency. When M S Dhoni and co sailed for the English shores, it was thought that the primer had been learnt. Yet, there was evidence of foolhardy arrogance in the Indian approach to this crucial third test.

There was a hint of that lightheartedness right from the outset when Dhoni suggested it didn’t matter if they won the toss or not. Although what he implied was that they were undecided as to whether to field or bat, the discernible sluggishness set the tone of the match.  You would expect a team that had just won a memorable test at the Mecca of cricket and a captain, who has tasted overseas success only sporadically, to be a little more greedy.

In a sense this test match followed the same course as the one at Lord’s. Only that the roles had mysteriously switched: Here was a cricket pitch that should have suited India beautifully with minimal movement  for pacers, true bounce for their stroke-makers who hadn’t quite arrived on the tour yet, and a bit of turn from day one and a lot of it by day five. But instead, more than half the Indian batsmen succumbed to what are euphemistically called “pie-chuckers” on the fourth evening. And on the fifth day, Indians were needled where it hurts most: they were blown away by the part time spin of Moeen Ali and Joe Root! This was the second time in six test matches that India were found wanting against bowling that is their stale diet on a normal day.

India might whine that losing their premier bowling weapon — Ishant — on the eve of the test was somewhat demoralizing but they had only themselves to blame for failing to ensnare Alastair Cook early on day one. Ishant’s replacement Pankaj Singh hit the right spot on a pitch that had Cook’s name all over it for a year now and induced an edge that carried comfortably to gully where Ravindra Jadeja dropped an absolute dolly.

India’s slip cordon has been breached with great regularity this series. But this lapse reinforced the myth that Cook has the proverbial nine lives, and the English skipper played a knock that may well be his second coming. It also became the foundation of England’s first innings before Balance, Bell and Buttler piled on the misery which ended late on day 2 with the score 569 for 7 declared.

On a resplendent third morning, after having toiled hard in the field for almost two days, the Indian batsmen were expected to return the favour on a perfect batting day. But what emerged was an innings that flattered to deceive, only managing to stitch partnerships of 39, 32, 48 and 66 for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th wickets, respectively. Each time, in fact, a partnership was built with consummate ease only to be frittered away at the most inappropriate time — a la Rohit Sharma casually lobbing Moeen Ali straight to mid off at the stroke of tea. The Indian tail waged again and took them close to the follow on target which England may not have enforced in any case but the damage had been done, England led by 239, with the best part of two days to go.

What followed was on expected lines considering India’s traditional lack of application in fourth inning chases. England had a quick stint with the bat in the middle and left India the herculean task of having to bat 132 overs to save the game, which was quickly slipping out of their grasp. Any hopes of a miraculous escape were thwarted by Anderson who dismissed Rohit and Dhoni in the first half an hour of the final morning but the chief destroyer and the unlikely hero with the ball for England was Moeen Ali who finished with career best figures of 6 for 67. As England completed the formalities and performed the last rites, the Indian lower order folded like a pack of cards, leaving Ajinkya Rahane stranded on 52, having fought a lonely battle in the middle and the series tantalisingly poised at one a piece.

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