Flat track leaves Alastair Cook with plenty to ponder

Osman Samiuddin looks at the five things learned after the first Test between England and India, which ended in a draw.

While there were some encouraging signs for England captain Alastair Cook from the first Test, there was still much frustration in Nottingham as his team’s winless run in Test matches stretched to nine matches. Gareth Copley / Getty Images
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The first of five Tests between England and India looked for four days to be heading for a draw. For a few hours on the fifth, an England win seemed possible. It nonetheless ended in the draw it seemed destined to be. Still, we did learn some things. Here are five.

Pitch not perfect

Administrators love talking about how Test cricket needs to be saved. Yet administrators are also, ultimately, in charge of the surfaces Test cricket is played on. And what they are doing with surfaces is in direct conflict with their stated aims.

The three surfaces seen in England this summer have been abysmal. Forget that all three could have produced definitive results – a pitch is not always to be judged by its results.

Lord’s, Headingley and Trent Bridge produced slow, sludgy wickets that produced grim, arrhythmic cricket. England used to be known by the variety of surfaces it could offer in a summer; batsmen, pacemen and slow men all could be confidently expected to thrive.

Yet a combination of economic compulsions and, ironically, technological advancements in drainage systems seem to be deadening surfaces. Counties need surfaces to last five days to enhance gate receipts and they also need the effects of rain minimised. Better drainage systems leave pitches less moist.

Results keep coming, but having to dredge through four days to get there is not much fun.

Bunnies no more

Now it is clear: there are fewer batting bunnies in cricket than ever. The evidence is in the modern exploits of the tailender, the most compelling proof of how weighted cricket is toward batsmen.

At Trent Bridge, James Anderson nearly reached a first, remarkable hundred while batting at number 11; in partnership with Joe Root, he helped put on 198 runs, the highest partnership for the last wicket. Earlier, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami (previous Test batting average 3.33) put on 111 for India’s last wicket.

Part of it relates to the infuriating stance of modern captains to stop attacking a set batsman once the last man is in. Some can be attributed to the increasing priority tailenders give to batting.

Teams today are obsessed with the idea of eradicating a tail altogether. Numbers 9, 10 and 11 spend more time in batting nets than before. They are better enabled in every way by the game: not just by protective guards and helmets, but placid surfaces, too. It cannot be long before the team’s last man hits his first hundred.

The new golden

It should not be this easy to replace a batting generation as golden as India’s. Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman were responsible for the upturn in fortunes in the 2000s, and by most logical assessments, should be extremely difficult to succeed.

To an extent, they have not, of course. India’s away record over the course of this transition is awful. But hidden in that run of results has been the blooming of a new, potentially durable batting order. When Murali Vijay hit a hundred in the first innings, it meant that each one of India’s top five had scored at least a hundred in India’s last five away Tests.

That is no mean feat, given that those came against some of the more testing pace attacks around, in South Africa, New Zealand and England.

The eldest of the order is Vijay, at 30, and they already have 19 Test hundreds among them. Barring Vijay, they all average over 45, too.

Cook watch

No one came into the Test under as much pressure as Alastair Cook, which, given that he was facing an opponent permanently under more pressure than any, is some accomplishment.

Another failure with the bat did not help, and neither did extending a winless streak now standing at nine Tests.

But somehow, Cook seemed lighter in the field. Maybe it was the relief of a man who knows his time may be up, but for a while in the field, he seemed a new man. There were plenty of those funky field settings that his detractors bemoan that he does not employ enough.

There was, alas, a pretty swift reversion to the kind of regressive caution that has typified his captaincy, never more than in India’s last-wicket stand, where he let things drift again. But as much as what he does in the field, it will be whether he can start scoring runs again that will be crucial to his future.

Prior drops the ball

Before any decision is taken on Cook, England’s selectors are likely to take one on Matt Prior. For a while, during England’s rise, Prior was their beating heart.

He was combative, had become safe behind the stumps and, at No 7, was a key controller of an innings’ momentum.

That was then. The reality now is that even if his batting may hold up, his glove work has dipped alarmingly, back to the kind of calamity-ridden levels of his early England years.

He fluffed several more chances in Trent Bridge, to add to some costly misses in the series against Sri Lanka.

In Jos Buttler, England have, potentially, a dynamite successor. Even if he is not Test-ready yet, as Cook believes, Prior’s form is such that England have to take a call, and soon.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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