England have finished this Test series in India with a 3-1 defeat. That is better than most would have expected for a team with relatively few established players. For all the endless chatter about the Ashes, it is winning in India that is the final frontier for England teams. The issue for England is not the scoreline as much as the narrative that has been left behind. Having won the series proceeding this one in Sri Lanka, and after winning the first Test in Chennai, the drubbings that came in the final three Tests of this series are all the starker.
The truth is that England never really recovered from being completely outplayed on a turning pitch in the second Test and their thinking was muddled from then on. They picked a team full of seamers for the day/night Test on a surface where they should have played their spinners, then they picked all their spinners for the final Test when they should have had an extra seamer.
This failure to pick the right players when they had the chance probably didn’t make much difference in the day/night Test, such was the way the pitch and the behaviour of the ball that England were massively outgunned.
But they had a chance to get back into the final match even after their top order had failed again. India were 146/6 when Ravichandran Ashwin fell to Jack Leach. There was hope, albeit slim, that England could have bowled India out for a score that was close to what they had stumbled to in their first innings.
But with just one frontline seamer in James Anderson and a very out of sorts Dom Bess they could not find a way through the partnership between Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar. That is not to take anything away from those two players, Pant, in particular, was otherworldly in his brilliance. The reverse sweep over the slips played of James Anderson with a new ball was breath-taking in its audacity. But the chance was there, and it could not be taken with the resources England had given themselves.
It is very telling of England, and cricket teams in general, that the batting failures in the second and third Tests saw them drop a bowler and pick an extra batsman. If you have seven top-order players who have failed repeatedly the chances are having eight of them will make little difference. That England did not make a single fifty partnership in the three Tests they lost is a damning statistic and one that should cause them real pause and picking Dan Lawrence did nothing to fix that problem.
As it was Lawrence was one of the few players who leave this India series with their reputations enhanced. Ben Stokes remains as talismanic as he was before, Joe Root’s reputation as England’s best player of spin was not too badly dented thanks to his brilliant 218 in the first match.
In truth, those two players are the only established top order batsmen and the chatter around England’s team going forward has been overshadowed by the rotation policy that saw Jos Buttler sit out the last three Tests of this series and Moeen Ali head home after taking eight wickets in the second match.
While Buttler will undoubtedly find his way back into this team for the English summer the same cannot be said for Moeen Ali.
When you lose anything can be used as a reason for that failure, and players coming and going is radical enough that it is an easy target. But no one can say for sure if it played a part, maybe England would have lost even heavier in those last three games if they hadn’t given players the chance to rest up.
England looked mentally shot in Ahmedabad, but the reason for that is more likely to be the success of Ashwin and Axar Patel than Moeen getting to spend time with his wife and kids. It does seem much more likely that picking the wrong players from the squad they had played a much bigger part in the margin of these defeats than rotating players in and out of the touring party.
The real issue for England in this series, first Test aside, was a lack of runs and it was the top three who were the most to blame. Despite a fifty each for Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley, England’s top three ended this series with an average of just 14.2.
Analytics firm CricViz say this is the lowest average for England’s top three since a series against South Africa in 1906. It is early enough in the careers of Crawley and Sibley that they will shake this off, the same may not be true for Johnny Bairstow.
Bairstow came into bat at three in the first Test of the winter in Sri Lanka, and his 47 and 35* seemed to suggest that in Asian conditions he may well find success in that spot. Then he was one of the players who went home for a rest and it didn’t seem to have done him much good. A pair in the third Test and 0 and 28 in the fourth means he averages just 20 in Test cricket in the last two years and his issue with missing straight balls continues. While his place in England’s white-ball sides seems assured, he may have a long wait before he has another game Test for England.
The real takeaway from this series is that it could have been far worse. England finish their six Asian Tests this winter with three wins and three losses, a decent return in the conditions that they find the most challenging, but the gloss of those three wins upfront hasn’t half been rubbed off by the three losses that followed.