England’s lack of aggression is costing them

Without an aggressive game plan aimed at winning, England have struggled to avoid defeat. The ongoing test series against India is one such instance

Joe Root during the third Test match in Mohali. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP
Joe Root during the third Test match in Mohali. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

England’s batting slump after scoring 537 in the drawn first Test in Rajkot has put the series in peril for them. In the first innings at both Visakhapatnam and Mohali, they struggled to score 300 with the pitch in both Tests at its best. Both matches were lost.

The England top order boasts rich experience, exciting young talent and some highly capable all-rounders shore up the lower order. This has made the collapses surprising, embarrassing and disappointing. 

At Rajkot, India ceded considerable psychological ground. It appeared then that England’s batsmen had effectively countered the threat from spin—in technique, and in the mind—and were in the more dominant position in the series. 

The second and third Tests have seen a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. India have shown laudable skills, fine tactical acumen and fierce ambition in reversing the trend. But England have contributed to their own downfall with a confused batting tactic. 

On Indian pitches, against high-quality spinners and especially in the contemporary game, a defensive approach has little value. Unless the batsmen are willing to show some enterprise, rotate the strike regularly and punish loose deliveries, bowlers will dictate terms.

It is imperative to disrupt the rhythm of the spinners, make them think more, try harder, and therefore also increase the likelihood of their making mistakes. Not doing this allows the slow bowlers to get a stranglehold, after which dismissal is a matter of when, not whether. 

India have shown how to overcome such situations quite admirably in this series. Even when some wickets have fallen, the batsmen haven’t allowed England to take a firm grip on the passage of play, keeping the runs coming at a fair tick. 

A study of how visiting teams have fared in India reveals how and why an overly circumspect approach just does not work. Even the hugely experienced and classy South African side fell into this trap on their last visit here in 2015. 

Only one team has beaten India in India in the past 12 years: ironically, England in 2012-13. Experiences of that tour were so instructive, it is a surprise Alastair Cook (who was captain even then) hasn’t followed them strongly enough this time.

Spinners Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar were the heroes of England’s triumph in 2012-13, but the turning point of that series came through the swashbuckling batting of Kevin Pietersen in the second Test at Mumbai.

On a pitch with turn and bounce, Pietersen played with amazing derring-do to snatch the match away from India. Walking in to bat with his side in a crisis of sorts at 68-2, he smashed 186 from just 233 deliveries. It was breathtaking to watch it; it decimated the confidence of the spinners and flattened India’s resolve.

That became the pattern of England’s batting approach in 2012-13. While Cook and/or Jonathan Trott would drop anchor, Ian Bell, Matt Prior and particularly Pietersen would look to take the attack to the spinners with calculated risk. 

Obviously, there is no player of Pietersen’s class in the current side. But Joe Root is not much behind. He is a major batsman in the contemporary game. There are also fine strokemakers in Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali to provide thrust with Cook and Haseeb Hameed to play fulcrum. 

Controlled aggression is the key, as also identifying the one or couple of batsmen who will provide this thrust—regularly, and obviously sensibly. Stokes and Bairstow, for instance, have looked the part, but have batted too low. Moeen Ali looks just too mercurial and loose to fit this role.

Without an aggressive game plan aimed at winning, England have struggled to avoid defeat. Attrition hasn’t paid dividends. Intermittent bouts of attacking stroke play have been unsuccessful because of poor shot selection.  

This has put them in a hole that has kept getting bigger and blacker by the day.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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