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G Rajaraman - Keep the Faith

Kevin Pietersen's side has displayed on day one of the Test series that it is a force to reckon with



Thursday, December 11, 2021
England more competitive than Australia


Comparisons, they have always said, are odious. But who listens to such words of advise? For I am sticking my neck out and suggesting that on the basis of the first day's show in the opening Test against India in Chennai on Thursday, England may just be a notch ahead of Australia as a competitive Test unit.

There were two things that set England apart from Australia. In matters of team selection – and perhaps because of the presence of the gifted all-rounder Andrew Flintoff in the squad –Pietersen's team has shown a braver approach than Australia. And, England's opening batsmen buckled themselves down, ready to play the grinding game.

England risked leaving out the in-form batsman Owais Shah and handed off-spinner Graeme Swann his maiden Test cap as left-arm spinner Monty Panesar's spin twin. Pietersen's decision to go in to the Test with a full complement of five bowlers is a statement of positive intent even as it allows him to cover an extra base in case the track crumbles in the coming days.

It takes a lot of courage to leave a batsman out of the XI in favour of blooding a spinner into Test cricket. And I believe that England has shown a more positive attitude to first recognising its own limitations when playing in India and then in picking a squad that can challenge the home side in a two-match series.

Having done his side a huge favour by winning the toss, Pietersen sat back to watch Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook string together a diligent partnership. Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma were not allowed the joy of drawing blood early and India was made to wait for 40 overs before the openers were separated.

It is in these things that England has come across as more focussed, eager and perhaps a tad more competitive than Australia that recently went back from India after a 0-2 loss. Then again, expression of intent is one thing and, as England found out in the final session on Wednesday, building on a good start altogether another.

It does look like England has been driven on the backfoot in the session to the draw of stumps. Zaheer Khan's twin strike in five overs against Ian Bell and Pietersen coupled with a poor umpiring decision against Paul Collingwood and Amit Mishra's superb return catch to end back Strauss' vigil ensured that India made up considerable ground.

When it sits back to analyse the final session England will know that Yuvraj Singh's tidy spell – when he did not allow the batsmen to play the sweep and throttled them – contributed in no small measure. It was almost as if England was prepared for all that India had to throw at its batsmen but had overlooked Yuvraj Singh's role as a left-arm spinner.

Flintoff batted responsibly in the final hour and holds the key to England's aspirations of actually being a more competitive unit in India. The visiting side opted to send in James Anderson as night-watchman, persevering wicket-keeper Matt Prior and Swann for the greater challenge of stretching the innings till late on Friday afternoon.

I have resisted the temptation of talking about the cricket against the backdrop of security and try to focus on the cricket itself. If indeed we take into account the presence of khaki and battle fatigues in and out of the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, England's opening day show – especially in the first two sessions – will be worthy of higher praise.

Strauss and Cook, in particular, showed that cricket is all about focussing on one delivery at a time. If they had any lingering memories of the Mumbai terror attack of November 26 and its aftermath, they showed no signs of that. And the errors that men like Bell, Pietersen and Strauss committed in the final sessions had little to do with the overwhelming security presence.

In the cricket arena, I would like to believe that England has come in with a more positive intent than Australia. Of course, Australia had the upper hand in the first Test against India in Bangaluru but I find it hard to stop my mind from coming up with a wicked thought: How would have Australia dealt with the situation that arose from the terror attacks in Mumbai?


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