England’s sub-continental development appears to be stalling as India’s spin-trio facilitate victory

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It had all looked so rosy for England. It’s been three weeks since Haseeb Hameed had shown such considerable maturity and disposition on debut, three weeks since Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes all compiled such composed hundreds, three weeks since Adil Rashid came of age as a test match leg-spinner. How times have changed.

In Rajkot, England came so close to producing one of the great heists. As Rashid and co toiled in the Indian heat, rattling through their overs as quickly as possible to foster rapidity and potential victory, England believed. Unused members of the squad were deployed as ball-boys on the boundaries to enable a faster over rate. The pitch was conducive to the ensuing genius of Rashid. It was only the brilliance of Virat Kohli that defied England.

The tourists travelled to Visakhapatnam with renewed optimism and hope. It was misjudged. As this relentless and physically-demanding winter progresses, England’s sub-continental ineptitude is becoming increasingly conspicuous.

The first innings collapse in Vizag was unforgivable. Captain Cook received a ripsnorter of a delivery from the excellent Mohammad Shami, but the dismissals of Haseeb Hameed, Joe Root and the hapless Ben Duckett were as unnecessary as they were impetuous. England’s young opener was run out by Root. A loss of concentration from England’s number three saw him sky the bowling of Ashwin to Umesh Yadav at mid-off. Duckett – who was deservedly dropped after two Tests – appeared perplexed when facing spin.

Whilst some may perceive England’s second innings collapse in that Test to have been the fatal one, they are wrong. It was a critical toss for Cook to win, and his batsman failed to deliver runs in a crucial first innings. Only Ben Stokes and the terrific Jonny Bairstow demonstrated any sign of resistance. Likewise to these Indian pitches that the tourists are being undone on, England crumbled.

Mohali arrives, and still England do not learn. Cook needlessly attempts to cut Ashwin’s first ball of the match – after being dropped twice – and departs, Root swings mindlessly across the line of an innocuous Jayant Yadav delivery whilst Moeen Ali falls into Shami’s obvious short-ball trap. Hameed was the only batsman to have been legitimately got out that morning.

England’s chances were therefore immediately inhibited. Although Bairstow, Chris Woakes and the returning Jos Buttler showed some middle-order resolve, 283 all out so palpably represented an insufficient total. Poor.

Halloween may have passed, but this batting horror-show demonstrated no signs of stopping. England’s fragility against spin was so visibly manifested again in their second-innings, after the enterprising efforts of Ashwin and Jadeja with the bat had propelled India into a position with a 143 lead. England were weak.

Yet things somehow got worse. Despite his courageous 59 not out, the extent of Haseeb Hameed’s hand injury – he requires surgery – surely constituted alarming for England fans. The precocious opener has taken to Test cricket so adeptly on this tour, delineating concentration and application at the top of the order and taking important catches at short-leg. He will be missed.

England must rebuild. Whilst a trip to Dubai in this mid-series break was essential owing to the significant demands this lengthy tour represents, there is still hard work to be done. The selectors must determine whether employing three spinners in Mumbai is necessary, particularly given the emergence and enhancing reliability of Adil Rashid. The squad must ensure they welcome the arriving Keaton Jennings and Liam Dawson warmly, fostering unity and spirit amongst themselves. The batsman must learn how to play spin.

Does hope still remain for England? Even the world’s greatest optimist would surely conclude not. Whilst his first Test hundred in Rajkot resembled the Cook of old, the England captain has looked out of sync this series, particularly when facing the skilful Mohammad Shami. Likewise, England’s middle-order – bar the profoundly-developed Jonny Bairstow – looks so alarmingly vulnerable against spin. They must improve as much as their suntans do in this eight-day break.

India under Virat Kohli cut a ruthless outfit, intensely hounding this now psychologically-scarred England team. The tourists are cowering. Indeed, Kohli’s men show no signs of terminating the hunt as Mumbai beckons later this week. England must be bold.

A rank turner of a pitch inevitably awaits on the west Indian coast. As do Test match debuts. Owing to the almost certainly costly injury of Hameed, Keaton Jennings will become Cook’s twelfth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, a harrowing yet telling statistic but one that the emergence of Hameed looks to have addressed. The youngster will be sorely missed, but Jennings possesses great ability.

Whilst the injury of Zafar Ansari on this tour is not one that will distort the selectors’ sleeping patterns, decisions remain in terms of the structure of this team and the choice between two or three spinners. The inexorable rise of Rashid has seen Cook become increasingly dependent on the leg-spinner, turning to him more willingly and deploying him in longer spells owing to his improved control and consistency. His performances this winter have been a rare positive for the tourists.

As has the batting of Jonny Bairstow. England’s keeper has been superb this tour, demonstrating technically astuteness, composure and defiance in the middle-order. If this side are to have any chance of success in these final two games, the maintenance of Bairstow’s form is vital.

But it’s weakness rather than strength that has characterised this tour. It’s been the incompetence shown by England’s batsmen that has been so striking, with the middle-order seemingly incapable of occupying the crease for prolonged periods of time. It’s been this team’s stark lack of development since the opening game in Rajkot that has been so alarming. It’s been their lack of fight.

As Mumbai beckons, England must improve. If this side are able to leave Asia in January having avoided a 4-0 defeat, they will have played well in these final two Tests. It’s just a shame it had all started so promisingly.

Photograph: wikimedia.commons

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