It is said that you cannot win a Test match in one hour but that you can certainly lose one in the same period. If that is true, England proved that you cannot win a Test match with aggression alone but you can certainly lose one through mindless aggro in a red-mist session.
The most remarkable thing about India’s win at Lord’s earlier this week was that it was not one freakish innings or spell that turned a losing position into a winning one. Barring the 89-run stand between Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, aided and abetted by England’s tactics, the game was won by stunning Indian performances underpinned by sheer belief and the refusal to concede that the game was gone.
For a long while now India’s fast-bowling stocks have been on the rise but never before have they put together a four-pronged pace attack that could give the opposition 60 overs of pure hell, as Virat Kohli demanded, and got, on the final day of the second Test. All this with the best spinner in the world carrying drinks.
It is clear that England underestimated India, although that is a mistake they are unlikely to make again. It was as though England turned up expecting to binge-watch Downton Abbey only to find themselves in the middle of a particularly violent episode of Game of Thrones.
But there was a difference in the types of aggression on display from the home team and the visitors. While England acted out of what Chris Silverwood admitted was the baser motive to simply dish out payback, India’s behaviour was tactical.
Bumrah is the least likely of any bowler in the Indian set-up to use the ball to cause bodily harm or indeed to lose his rag and make things personal. Chances are his bouncer barrage came on Kohli’s say-so. Kohli has history with Jimmy Anderson, not that he needs that to turn to aggression over subtlety.
Shami is unafraid to use the short ball. But he uses the bouncer for shock and awe, usually with a view to pushing the batsman on to the back foot for the full ball that inevitably follows, rather than knocking heads off.
It is fair to say India’s behaviour on the final day would have been ugly to some. But this is far from new. There were people who believed the West Indian pace quartet of years gone by did not do the game any favours with their constant bumpers and slow over rates. There are people who found the mental disintegration approach of the champion Australian team a generation later to bring the game into disrepute, giving rise to the Ugly Australians moniker.
And, there are those who find Kohli a bit much today. There is a longing for a time when cricket was more of a gentleman’s game, all tea and scones, but in many ways this is nostalgia for something that never did exist. Scratch the surface and ugliness has always existed in cricket. What is more, there is no need to legislate – and nor is this feasible – for good behaviour.
There are rules in place today under which the umpires can step in at any time, whether in response to intimidating bowling or what is being said on the field. At Lord’s Michael Gough and Richard Illingworth were the stewards on the field of play. Between them they have enough experience, as players and umpires, to direct traffic, and they did step in when they felt the need. A failsafe exists in the form of the match referee, in this case the poacher turned gamekeeper Chris Broad.
The truth is, India did not win because of ugly tactics. They won because they had 11 potential matchwinners in their ranks while England had two: Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson. While Root did his job with the bat, he was the first to admit he let his team down as a captain, especially in failing to deploy the Anderson scalpel, choosing instead to go for the butcher’s knife short-ball offensive, using Mark Wood in the role of enforcer.
In an ideal world we should all be able to be successful without speaking a word in anger, but in modern sport that seems unlikely. If anything is worth lamenting it is this: that the world we live in has changed so much that the young grow up believing, even being actively taught, that it is impossible to be simultaneously nice and a winner.
India’s cricketers do not play their game in a vacuum. They are cut from the same cloth as the rest of modern society. To hold them to higher standards than politicians, actors, journalists or anyone else in public life is to have false expectations, which is setting yourself up for disappointment.
For India, all that mattered was victory and, until those running the game say otherwise, they should be seen only as having done their job, as sportsmen, if not ambassadors. The man of the match, KL Rahul, summed this up soon after the game was over: “If you go after one of our guys, you are going after the whole team. All XI of us will come right back.”
When Shami and Bumrah walked off the field at lunch on the final day, the entire Indian contingent, support staff included, were at hand in the Long Room, applauding the two. Little did they know that they were on the verge of a victory that will reverberate around the ground for years to come.