Fifth in the world again in the 50-over game: that seems about right for England, although in their own conditions India are the best, not third behind Australia and South Africa as they now officially are.
Inspired by their leonine captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, they thrashed useful opposition with a completely reshaped side from the eleven that had reached its High Noon in the World Cup final a mere six months previously. Amazing really: no Sehwag, Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel or Sreesanth.
The obvious conclusion is that from India’s long-term perspective all the injuries during the fateful tour of England were a massive blessing in disguise. They forced the hands of their selectors. The likes of Raina, Kohli and Rahane have proved that, as everyone should have known, India do actually possess strength in depth, that there is batting life after Tendulkar, Sehwag, Dravid and Laxman, that Ashwin is capable of taking over from ‘Bhajie’ in all forms of the game now as the prime spinner and that there are at least two express bowlers in Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav.
India’s golden era may or may not have passed – the old guard will not want to concede their places without a battle – but England’s is supposed to be only just starting. To my mind they have even deeper resources so there is no need for panic despite their deep embarrassment. The nil-five result, following similar failures in their last two one-day series in India (five-nil again in 2008, five-one in 2006) was cleverly compared by Andy Flower to their humiliation in the Jamaica Test at the start of his alliance with Andrew Strauss that kick-started the Test renaissance.
It was, of course, disappointing that the same old failings were exposed against spin bowlers on slow pitches. Graeme Swann, a.k.a. the best spinner in the world, was distinctly second best to Ravichandran Ashwin, whose economy rate of only 4.28 runs an over during the five matches, not to mention ten wickets, was exceptional, especially as he bowled a good many overs during power-plays.
Samit Patel looked equally ordinary beside Ravindra Jadeja, but that was largely a reflection not so much of how they bowled as of how India, and Dhoni in particular, batted against him, mixing deftly placed ones and twos with big hits, often straight or to the off-side, rather than England’s favourite area, politely called mid-wicket but known in lower echelons as cow corner.
Swann, although he had a wake-up call and suffered for getting over-heated in the third match (I suspect that, like Ryan Sidebottom some time ago, he was dropped partly as a caution not to sound off so ostentatiously against his own team-mates) was milked as if he were any old county off-spinner but he needs a rest more than anyone else. He did not, in fact, have a great season for England last summer, either in Tests (his 13 wickets against India cost 40 each) or limited-overs games.
England have tried to address the problem of having too few six-hitters but only Craig Kieswetter, whose ‘keeping is unconvincing, and Samit Patel had a strike-rate above 90, unlike five of India’s top seven batsmen. ‘Team’ England now have plenty of others who can clear the boundary, apart from these two and Kevin Pietersen. Jos Buttler, Alex Hales and Chris Woakes are three of them and so are Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes, the left-handers who, as Flower pointed out, were badly missed in the middle-order to make it more difficult for the opposing spinners to settle to a line and length.
Placing the ball into gaps with flexible wrists is a bread and butter job for Indian batsmen on their low-bouncing surfaces. Once upon a time English professionals were equally adept. Think of John Edrich, considered by some a pawky old run accumulator despite his blazing triple century against New Zealand at Leeds in 1965 (five sixes and 52 fours). He was one of the great milkers of all types of bowling.
It is something of a lost art in English batsmanship because of blander, covered pitches and those meaty but beautifully balanced modern bats that encourage players to punch the ball firmly with the full face. On most Test pitches that is a great virtue but complete batsmen can also whack it over the top when they have to and angle the ball into gaps to keep the scoreboard humming.
England have much to learn but also plenty of good young players capable of doing so. As to their bowling strength, nothing has changed because of one bad series. Stuart Broad was inevitably missed but Steven Finn advanced impressively and now needs only to control his quite unnecessary sledging. He has been very ill-advised if he thinks that will get him wickets.