The 2000th Test was one of the better ones. Pink balls and floodlights, both of which find favour with the MCC, may have their place in the renaissance of Test cricket, but not in England. Where else in the world could India play a Test match, in which there was not a spare seat to be had for five days? Not even in India.
England gave a performance, which satisfied all the criteria that Duncan Fletcher has always demanded. They were disciplined and multi-dimensional: just look at the contributions of a rejuvenated Stuart Broad with ball and bat; their batsmen were patient and innovative: witness Kevin Pietersen’s double hundred. Their bowlers were fast and on target and they controlled the game, their fielders alive and aggressive, if not flawless. Moreover England’s preparation for the game was thorough and energetic.
The problem for former England coach Fletcher is that he is now on the other side. A different media pack will start hounding him soon. Already they are agonising over the defeat at Lord’s. Either the Indian team are too tired or they are too rusty, we are told.
The fatigue argument cannot really hold water as an excuse for their performance in that first Test. If a capacity crowd at cricket’s most venerated venue does not get their juices flowing then the Indian players may as well stick to the white ball. We might comprehend tiredness at Taunton in a warm-up game, or even at a less prestigious Test venue, but not at Lord’s.
In fact the underperformers were generally those players who had not been in the Caribbean for the recent Test series against the West Indies: Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan, who bowled reasonably but whose body is obviously creaking, and Sachin Tendulkar.
For Fletcher there is a very tricky balancing act ahead. He likes to sit back and assess at the start of a new job, which makes perfect sense; it means his judgements can be informed. The problem is that he has no time. The Tests in this series come thick and fast.
Although he has always insisted on the primacy of the captain, Fletcher likes to be in control. That was perfectly possible when he started with a youthful England side back in 1999. It cannot be possible with such a venerable team containing players who are deified back in India and who are not used to being told what to do. More sensitive, balancing required.
Oddly enough the Indian team, number one in the world and brimful of talent, has characteristics that Fletcher railed against when he joined England. It has a long tail (understandably Fletcher vowed that England under his watch would never take the field with a Mullally, Tufnell, Malcolm combination at 9,10,11). The Indian bowlers lack pace, which Fletcher has always regarded as essential at the highest level. Praveen Kumar is clever and skilful but he is not Fletcher’s type for the new ball. However he might be Dhoni’s.
Moreover Fletcher has always been a stickler. He demands that his players should be prompt, conscientious and energetic in their preparation. As a kid, Graeme Swann fell by the wayside for failing to measure up in these areas. But these are not obvious characteristics of the Indian team, however assiduously they attend to their own games. There is a languor about their approach to preparation, which may not cheer him greatly.
So there are challenges ahead for Fletcher and the Indians especially if the surfaces they encounter in the next two Tests at Nottingham and Birmingham are more fast-bowler friendly, which is a reasonable expectation.
On that note we must congratulate Mick Hunt for producing such a fine surface at Lord’s with sufficient life to encourage all parties. Hunt himself thought it was one of his best Test pitches. When we agonise over the future of Test cricket, which we all have been recently, the critical role of the groundsmen and the nature of the pitches they produce are often overlooked. I promise you the pitch is even more important than the colour of the ball and the timing of the start of play.
Let me offer a warning from near to home. The Twenty20 is heralded as county cricket’s saviour; the format can provide glorious entertainment –and large crowds. And what is happening? Groundsmen are being encouraged by some captains to prepare tired, old, bare surfaces, recently used, which prevent batsmen hitting the ball anywhere against competent spinners. As the spectacle is destroyed, the punters – unless all they crave is a win – will become disillusioned.
I suppose this practice could be a Machiavellian plot to persuade us that Twenty20 cannot compete with Test cricket. But, after the Lord’s Test, such plotting is surely unnecessary.