There are 4-0 series and there are 4-0 series. This was never a 4-0 series. If the same squads lined up at the beginning of 10 series in 10 alternate universes, England would do well to whitewash India twice.
This series was one of those children’s adventure books where every option the kid chooses has a direct consequence – choose option C every time and finally they end up in hell, that sort of thing. This was the tour India kept choosing option C.
England fans might have recognised the signs, seeing as it was basically a low-budget rerun of an England Ashes tour from any time between 1989 and 2007, where absolutely anything that can go wrong does, and then some. 2006-07 will do – for England then read India now, for Duncan Fletcher read, oh, Duncan Fletcher.
India’s injuries were horrible. Losing Sehwag – the one batsman who could have put England’s smugly economical quicks under pressure, was bad enough. Losing Zaheer in the first Test and Harbhajan in the second – leaving them with three bowlers in each, was a cheap shot from fate. Zaheer was the key – with him directing the feisty, frugal Kumar and the sporadic, impressionable Sharma, they would have caused England real problems, as they did on that first morning at Lord’s. Without him India’s attack lacked a leader and their side a chance. Their only hope then was to amass big totals and put pressure on England that way, but only Rahul Dravid read that game-plan.
They were unlucky to run into an England side that has rarely (if ever) been as sure-footed, and with home advantage too. If there is a significant gap between the two sides then it is in how they deal with adversity. England had injuries too, but they were able to replace Chris Tremlett with Tim Bresnan without disrupting their ‘attack through defence’ bowling strategy, and even add some more runs as well. Crucially, when Jonathan Trott injured himself at Trent Bridge, leaving England a batsman down with a first-innings deficit, there was no fuss, Ian Bell just went and got 150 and won them the game.
For India, there was no such depth or strength of character to call upon. The bowling resource was negligible, while the batting line-up reacted to Gautam Gambhir’s one-man injury procession like Anna Wintour stepping in dog shit. That Fletcher was seemingly unable to motivate his team is a huge concern – he has now been whitewashed in two of his last three series as coach and there must be serious doubts as to whether he is the man to stage manage this delicate period of Indian history.
The Indian reaction is key, not just from a board of whom it is easy now to allege an unhealthy obsession with the IPL dollar. Do their players still want it? Preparation for and success over five days of cricket, four times over a month is a lot of hard work. England want it. Rahul Dravid wants it. He’s 38 yet he’s knocking out hundreds like Brangelina do foster-kids. He and Mike Hussey (35 when he stuck 195 on England at Brisbane) are proof that if you want it enough you have a decent chance of getting it. Graham Gooch has made sure England’s batsmen know that – it was instructive to see Alastair Cook in the nets at 9.30am on the last two mornings at The Oval, two days when he was unlikely to get a bat.
For England’s part, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower are savvy enough not to get carried away. And they shouldn’t. In a weird way England’s players have missed an opportunity this last month – an opportunity to prove themselves against the best side in the world, because that India is not the one we got. What England did is reemphasise what they showed against Australia this winter, that when it comes to beating and demoralising downtrodden, floundering sides there is no team more ruthless.