When swing clipped Indian wings!

At the moment, England seems assured but it is still early days to anoint its batsmen as the best in the business. Only when Alastair Cook and others survive and succeed in another Ashes when Johnson steams in can a final judgement be made, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

It was a Sunday in August, with the summer on the wane in England. There was a nip in the air, it could rain anytime and the fickle English weather was revealing its character. At a distance were a bunch of men, some with their wives, others with their girlfriends… and a few kids too were playing.

We aren’t talking about a classic family and friends outing at London’s Hyde Park because the above vignette was seen at The Oval. Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad, to name a few, were letting the pleasant after-effects of a come-from-behind series victory seep into their hearts. And as the children did their cartwheels, the pastoral scenes were a huge contrast to the manner in which the English summer had commenced for Cook’s men.

The back-story was all about the lingering trauma from the Ashes debacle and when Sri Lanka pocketed a two-Test series 1-0, knives were being sharpened. Cook wasn’t scoring runs, England was losing and Kevin Pietersen rubbed it in with his sarcasm on Twitter and India only added to the host skipper’s headaches.

After a drawn first Test at Nottingham’s Trent Bridge, Ishant Sharma bounced out England at Lord’s. The ambush was stunning and dramatic like Kapil Dev holding aloft the World Cup or Sourav Ganguly taking off his t-shirt and waving it like a man possessed. And at every press conference, Cook kept his dignity and stressed that he was aware of the need to score runs and cared dearly about leading England.

Cut to the present, those scenes of joy and a sense of quiet achievement coursing through The Oval’s turf were all engineered to perfection once England shrugged off the Lord’s debacle and won the next three Tests by emphatic margins. A seemingly lost series was secured at 3-1 and the change in script was directly proportional to the way England batted and the manner in which its fast bowlers, especially James Anderson and Broad, scythed through India’s willow wielders, who came in with fine reputations but limped away with self-doubts.

The tone was set during the third Test at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl. Cook won the toss and he could have easily taken second strike due to his poor form, but the skipper was absolutely certain about his agenda — bat first, bat big and flip a huge scoreboard and its resultant pressure upon M. S. Dhoni’s men. Cook himself set the right example with a 95 and fate too helped him as Ravindra Jadeja dropped the southpaw on 15!

Others like Bell (167) and Gary Ballance (156) helped themselves and England finished with 569. The rest, as they say, is history and Cook’s men never looked back after savouring a 266-run victory.

England batted well for the remainder of the series and that was all that Anderson and company required while running in to bowl.

A glance at the series averages is revealing. England thrived on the consistency of Joe Root (518 runs, averaging 103.60, two 100s) and Ballance (503, 71.85, 2x100), and the late surge from Cook (298, 49.66, 3x50) and Ian Bell (297, 42.42, 1x100).

India, meanwhile, had only Vijay (402, 40.20, 1x100), Dhoni (349, 34.90, 4x50) and Ajinkya Rahane (299, 33.22, 1x100) in the leading scorers’ list, while Cheteshwar Pujara (222) and Virat Kohli (134) hardly looked the part.

If England’s batting gained weight and depth as the series progressed, the converse happened with India and in that twist, the five Tests’ cumulative verdict was shaped. Cook, while battling poor form, had solitary sessions in the nets with just coach Peter Moores supervising the batsman’s footwork, especially the forward-press. True to his drop-anchor-grind-the-runs method, Cook found his way back and though a much-desired hundred never came his way, he did enough for the rest to strike roots.

Ballance, who grew up in a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe before migrating to the land of his ancestors, displayed a resilience that is typical of those hailing from a rural background. And unlike Cook, this left-hander had a bigger repertoire of shots too.

Root, meanwhile, can be irritating if you are an opponent as he tends to sport a goofy grin all the time. A four is struck, grin; ball beats the bat, grin; a team-mate takes a catch, grin more!

But Root is more than just pearly whites flashing like a Close-Up toothpaste advertisement. He has the skill and if needed, like he showed at The Oval on the third day, he could switch to an ODI mode of batting too.

Among England’s batsmen, Ian Bell is the artist, he has those extra seconds to stroke a four and always seems at ease.

England does have the right blend of old-school batting that accumulates gradually and stretches time and the new breed not averse to clear that front foot and slam a bowler.

Importantly, there were no half-measures from England’s batsmen. The stride was assured, foot-work confident and shots were essayed when loose deliveries cropped up. It is not that there are no flaws. Cook is still a touch uncertain around his off-stump, Root has his issues with the short-ball, Bell can edge a few in his early tenure and Ballance is still a work in progress and critically for him, he is yet to face Mitchell Johnson, who scarred the other three in the Ashes.

On the other end, are the Indian batsmen, who looked lost. Agreed Anderson and Broad are a potent pair and with damp, overcast English conditions holding sway at Old Trafford and The Oval, even the gods — weather and cricketing — seemed to back Cook’s men. Yet there is no excuse for the manner in which Kohli and colleagues capitulated. Only Vijay showed infinite patience but later, like Rahane, he tapered off with the only excuse being, he got some fine deliveries.

Pujara and Kohli, stepping into Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar’s shoes, showed that they have miles to go before they can partake of the legends’ halo. Pujara had his starts, while Kohli hardly had any and both were unified in their tentativeness. Pujara proved suspect to the ball that darted in, Kohli was tempted by the one moving seductively around off-stump and once India’s batting-heart was prised out, there was not much the others could do despite Dhoni’s resilience.

Between them, Anderson and Broad shared 44 wickets but if the Indian batsmen honestly stare into a mirror and ask hard questions, they would be aware that a fair share of the blame rests on them. India’s last five innings yielded 178, 152, 161, 148 and 94 and that caused the visitor’s meltdown.

At the moment, England seems assured but it is still early days to anoint its batsmen as the best in the business. Only when Cook and others survive and succeed in another Ashes when Johnson steams in can a final judgement be made. For now, England can enjoy its special Sundays like the one at The Oval when a visiting team collapses within three days!