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India v England 3rd Test - Comment: A Tale of Two Cities- London (2018) and Motera (2021)

England's James Anderson celebrates after taking the wicket of India's KL Rahul
England's James Anderson celebrates after taking the wicket of India's KL Rahul at Lord's 2018
India's Axar Patel and Virat Kohli 2021
India's Axar Patel and Virat Kohli 2021

Leading the chorus of protests against the Motera pitch for the third test in the ongoing India-England series is The Telegraph’s Scyld Berry, a former Wisden editor whose Twitter handle wonders rather immodestly whether anyone alive has seen more Tests - 430 plus?”

Lending him able company in righteous indignation is Michael Vaughan whose social media strategy appears to be to periodically rile up a billion cricket followers in India with disastrously wrong predictions- the latest being a 4-0 loss to Australia in the recently concluded tour that saw India both winning the series and breaching the mythical fortress Gabba. Mr. Berry went so far as to call for India to be docked points in the World Test championship as punishment for producing a pitch unfit for Test cricket, with Vaughan suggesting that India’s “shallow victory” in the third test was abetted by a “toothless” ICC that was incapable of holding them accountable for producing a pitch that offered turn from day one. While one could rationally join either side of the argument about whether the pitch was fit or not for test cricket, you would not have to dig too far down the archive of the “430 plus” test matches Berry has seen to marvel at his inconsistency in passing judgment about pitches and the legitimacy of home advantage.

After the entire first day’s play of the second test on India’s tour of England in 2018 was abandoned due to rain, Joe Root won the toss on the second day at Lord’s under grey skies overhanging a damp wicket. India were bowled out for 107 in just 35.2 overs in their first innings, with Jimmy Anderson picking up 5 for 20. Just what did Scyld Berry make of the conditions? Here he is writing in the Telegraph on the day’s play:

Not only was the swing more extreme than at Edgbaston but the seam movement was occasionally such, when the ball bit into the damp turf, that it could have been one of Adil Rashid’s leg breaks souped up to mid-80s mph.”

We will never know just how good Adil Rashid’s leg breaks would have been that day because he did not get to bowl a single ball in India’s first innings or their second. Mr. Berry was, however, positively giddy in his praise of Jimmy Anderson’s “master craftsmanship” while wondering what was more remarkable- “that he conceded 20 runs or that he took five wickets.” If this left you in any doubt of the writer’s awe of Anderson’s skill, his enthusiastic exhortation- “All hail the king of swing!” should have laid the matter to rest.

And, what should one make of the oversized advantage England enjoyed in winning the toss and bowling first on such a spicy pitch in conditions that were all too familiar to them? In 2016, the ECB in an experiment to discourage pitches disproportionately favouring seam bowlers, decided to break with more than two hundred years of tradition and do away with the mandatory toss at the start of games in the English county championship. They decided instead to allow visiting teams the option of bowling first and only opt for the toss if they decided not to do so. Peter Wright, Chairman of the ECB’s cricket committee explained the move:

"By giving the away team the option of bowling first, we hope the home side will be encouraged to produce the best possible four-day pitch. That will be good for cricket in general, and not only for spinners: batsmen should also benefit, from better pitches which will lead to them facing more spin bowling; and if pitches start drier, the ball may scuff up a bit more and produce more reverse swing. It isn't all about spin. But it is fair to say that the plight of spin bowling in this country brought things into focus.’

How would such a policy have worked if it were adopted in the 2018 test series? Would India having made the obvious choice to bowl first have knocked over England’s first innings in 30-odd overs? Scyld Berry offers up a rather insightful opinion on this delightful hypothetical in suggesting that “After 49 years of service at Lord's, the groundsman Mick Hunt would surely have lowered his mower-blades as far as possible before the start” to minimize any advantage the home team may have surrendered in allowing the visitors to bowl first.

The inconsistency of punditry between that series and this is breathtaking. Celebrating a fast bowler’s skill in running through the opposition on a damp, green wicket and legitimizing the protection of a home team’s prerogative to ensure the most favorable conditions appears par for the course at St John’s Wood but scandalous when a left arm orthodox spinner picks up 10 wickets on debut on a dry turning wicket in Ahmedabad. As the POTUS would say, “C’mon man!”

Back to that second test in 2018. After batting under bright sunny skies on day-3, England declared at 396-7 and bowled India out for 130 in their second innings to win by an innings and 159 runs. Jimmy Anderson took 4-23 in the second innings for match figures of 9 for 43. The entire test was played out over 170.3 overs making it the third shortest test in England over the last century. If Michael Vaughan called for the ECB to refund broadcasters their fees, or Scyld Berry for England to be docked points in the World test championship, they did so very privately.

England have made many mistakes in this series but none more egregious than leaving out Dom Bess in the third test. One of the abiding memories of this game for me is watching the camera pan to him sitting in the England corner wearing a yellow vest over his whites and with a shell-shocked look on his face. If a specialist spinner cannot play on these tracks in India, it is a damning indictment of England’s attitude towards spin bowling and nothing encapsulates it more than the cacophony of complaints following their defeat in the third test.

Match Summary - India v England, 3rd Test Day 2, Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad

England 1st Innings: 112 (48.4)

India 1st Innings: 145 (53.2)
Fall of wickets: 4-114 (Ajinkya Rahane-38.2 ov), 5-115 (Rohit Sharma-40.1 ov), 6-117 (Rishabh Pant-41.1 ov), 7-125 (Washington Sundar-45.1 ov), 8-125 (Axar Patel-45.3 ov), 9-134 (Ravichandran Ashwin-49.2 ov), 10-145 (Jasprit Bumrah-53.2 ov)

England 2nd Innings: 81 (30.4)
Fall of wickets: 1-0 (Zak Crawley-0.1 ov), 2-0 (Jonny Bairstow-0.3 ov), 3-19 (Dom Sibley-8.3 ov), 4-50 (Ben Stokes-17.2 ov), 5-56 (Joe Root-18.5 ov), 6-66 (Ollie Pope-21.6 ov), 7-68 (Jofra Archer-23.2 ov), 8-80 (Ben Foakes-28.2 ov), 9-80 (Jack Leach-29.4 ov), 10-81 (James Anderson-30.4 ov)

India 2nd Innings: 49-0 (7.4)

Result - India won by 10 wickets


Match Summary -  England vs India, 2nd Test, India tour of England 2018

England 396/7d (88.1 ov)

India 107/10 (35.2 ov) & 130/10 (47 ov)

Result – England won by an innings and 159 runs


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