CHENNAI: Dejection swept through the English ranks even as Chepauk erupted in joy. Kevin Pietersen’s men had come up short at the crunch.
England did not believe it could actually win a Test from a position of dominance. The side lacked the ruthlessness that teams familiar with winning possess.
It was an ordinary Test for Pietersen as captain. Tactically, he was found wanting. England neither attacked, nor did it strangulate.
After Virender Sehwag’s blitzkrieg on Sunday, England had to bowl India out on the last day to clinch the first Test. Logically, if the Indian innings prolonged, the host was bound to win at some point after tea.
What went wrong with the English strategy?
In fact, little went right for the side after the third day. The team dug a hole for itself.
Winning is often about sending a strong message to the adversary. In the last session on day three, Andrew Strauss collected his runs with typical efficiency and Paul Collingwood was refreshingly positive against the spinners.
At that point, India was down for the count on a brown, dusty pitch with dark patches on either side.
Ideally, England should have forced the pace when play resumed. Instead, Strauss and Collingwood blocked and blocked. Was this a side striving to go 1-0 up in a two-Test series?
Watching the proceedings, one would have assumed that here was a team seeking to draw the Test. Then, after a lengthy and rather aimless exercise in batting, England lost a cluster of wickets in quick time.
England had lost the mental edge. This was the beginning of the turnaround.
What followed was worse. England had got its strategy dead right against Virender Sehwag in the first innings.
The pacemen bowled very close to the off-stump and got the ball to move from a straight-line. Cramped for room, Sehwag perished early.
In the circumstances, it was incomprehensible why Sehwag was provided so much width by the pacemen — Steve Harmison in particular — in the second innings.
The plan to nail Sehwag on his strength was a flawed one since the punishing batsman grows in confidence with every stroke.
Then, Pietersen asked his premier spinner Monty Panesar — the spearhead in these conditions — to bowl a negative outside-the-leg-stump line from over-the-wicket. From a psychological perspective, the ploy hurt England.
The move suggested the hunter was becoming the hunted.
Aiding the spinners
The pitch did not deteriorate into a minefield, but there was definite assistance for the spinners at Chepauk. On a surface of this kind, a left-arm spinner bowling round-the-wicket can be a dangerous proposition. He can spin the ball away or make it come in with the arm at the right-hander.
Ironically, Pietersen himself had been consumed by an arm-ball from occasional left-arm spinner Yuvraj in the second innings.
Mentally, Panesar had to switch from an attacking mode to one of containment. He was never the same bowler again. Panesar was told to adopt similar tactics against Sachin Tendulkar on the decisive final day; this diminished the spinner further.
Spin bowlers need to settle into a rhythm and they have to be backed by their captain. In the event, Panesar bowled poorly.
Off-spinner Graeme Swann operated with greater purpose at the other end — he got the ball to spin sharply from the rough — but Panesar’s uninspired bowling undermined him as well.
On surfaces of this kind, the spinners work in tandem. In other words, pressure has to be created from either end.
Pietersen’s field placements were disappointing as well. The deep set field meant the singles were being conceded too easily. Had the singles been blocked, the batsmen might have been forced to drive the fuller length balls off the front-foot.
On a pitch where the ball was not quite coming on to the bat, there was every chance of a drive being miscued into the inner cordon.
Perhaps, Yuvraj Singh could have been tested by short-pitched deliveries from the pacemen at the beginning of his innings.
Yuvraj is not the best players of spin, but then a left-handed batsman generally copes well with a left-arm spinner. Swann from one end and Andrew Flintoff from the other early on against Yuvraj might have worked for England.