• With captain Eoin Morgan sitting out the final two ODIs with a hand injury, it was left to Jos Buttler to guide England to an as yet elusive series victory in India
  • The world champions chased in all three games, but came up just seven runs shy in the decider after a topsy-turvy contest
  • Lessons will have been learnt by England, but fans will be searching hard for the positives after eight defeats across all formats this tour – the second most suffered by an England team ever
PUNE, INDIA – There were flashes of their world dominating brilliance from England’s ODI side, but ultimately the tourists came up short yet again in what has been a trying series for England in all aspects of the game.

 

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Speak to any current or former cricketer, and they will tell you touring India is one of the hardest challenges you have to face in international cricket. Add to this year a global pandemic with players forced to remain in their hotel rooms, and it all adds up to  an unenviable task for England’s cricketers to try and put some smiles on their fans’ faces, in lockdown, from nearly 5000 miles away.

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Although there were glimpses of magic from the tourists – Joe Root‘s double hundred in the very first Test back in early February all the way through to Jonny Bairstow‘s man of the series showing in the one day side – the level of consistency and ruthlessness needed to overcome India on their home turf just wasn’t there throughout any of the three formats. Despite the size of the task England knew they were coming into, eight defeats from 11 matches probably wasn’t anywhere near the end result they were aiming for this winter, and that alone will disappoint them.

What will compound this disappointment will be the nature of the defeats, coming up short in key moments even in a format like one-day internationals where England are the current world champions, triumphing in the super over where Eoin Morgan‘s side proved they can hold their nerve. Some of the shine attached to England’s irrepressible attacking mentality has dimmed since their 2019 rise to the summit of world cricket, and now tough decisions must be made in order for this side to recover their ability to steamroller any team standing in their path.

Falling short

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Heading into Sunday’s decider in Pune, England had shaken off the major setback of losing the first game and their captain in one fell swoop to command a chase of 337 in the second ODI, largely thanks to Bairstow’s century and Ben Stokes’ unapologetically brazen 99 off just 52 balls. However, in a series involving two top-class sides, no game ever follows the same pattern. The only thing certain was that England would win another toss (they won 10 out of 12 on this tour) and elect to bat second. That left India’s openers with a conundrum. Both of these sides have very obvious gameplans when constructing their innings: India like to start cautiously and set up the game for their big hitters in the middle, whereas England go hard throughout their 50 overs and see where it takes them.

However, after England’s gameplan was so brilliantly executed in the second contest, India may have just altered their mentality slightly for the must-win third ODI, as they reached 65 without loss after 10 overs, their highest score batting first in a home ODI since the 2011 CWC. This score can’t all be put down to the brilliance of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, and England will look at the way they bowled in this final Powerplay as a key reason they lost by such a narrow margin.

Although they always have the mentality of being able to chase down any score with their wealth of batting talent, their bowlers still have a role to play in allowing England to control an ODI. England haven’t produced a complete performance in a 50-over game since their semi-final success vs Australia in the World Cup, and their results since becoming world champions read as six defeats and five victories. This stuttering form has meant no momentum has been built, which in turn has impacted upon the confidence of players aiming to break into the side.

One such man is Sam Curran, who will be talked about a lot after his tour of India. Originally slated as the perfect replacement for David Willey in this white-ball side (Willey is only 31, it should be noted, and was player of the series in England’s only series success since the World Cup), Curran has had to digest being on the cusp of an England star in all formats, without firmly establishing himself in any England setup as of yet.

Despite being in the England set-up for three years, the Surrey and Chennai Super Kings all-rounder has appeared in just eight ODIs in that time, bowling his full allocation of 10 overs just once in that time (the first match here in Pune). His best performance with the bat for England in any white-ball game was just 24 runs before Sunday’s decider, suggesting he is still feeling his way into the world of international cricket and trying to convince not only England fans but also to himself that he belongs at the highest level.

However, his unbeaten 95 off 83 balls, coming in when England had lost their sixth wicket with 162 runs still required, proves the power of this England side. India must have felt the game was theirs with every established England batsman back in the shed, and yet England still forced the game into the final over, even at one point looking like they had the advantage with 23 needed off the final three overs. This never-say-die attacking mentality being carried out by a man who had scored just 37 runs for England in ODI cricket before this match shows what happens when values are kept to, but also when the individual within the team feels valued.

 

How much value can you put on team values?

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Curran’s stoic display was ultimately in a losing cause, with India subtly changing the dynamic of their attack for this winner-takes-all battle. Before any series in India, you expect their spinners to dominate, which is exactly what happened in the red-ball leg of the tour; Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel took 59 of the 80 England wickets to fall. Despite this, in both the T20 and ODI deciders on this tour, India’s spinners bowled less than 12% of the overs, and yet they got over the line in both must-win games. What this shows is India are more willing to be flexible in decisive moments, and England’s gameplan, especially with their ODI bowling displays, became too predictable as India set up three impressive totals batting first.

However, stand-in captain Buttler, who only scored 17 runs in the series at the lowest average of any England player, was proud of how England stuck to their guns. He told ESPNCricinfo: “A huge part of our success as a side has been that never-say-die attitude to take games deep. A lot of our bowlers are very accomplished batsman, and Sam played an outstanding innings there. He will take a lot from that moving forward, even though there’s the disappointment of losing the game. There was always genuine belief that run-rate was never an issue, but anytime a game starts to come within reach, that’s when it starts to get harder. Everyone on the ground started to get a bit tense, and the guys in the dug-out as well, but we’re all very proud of the way Sam played. He showed all the traits that we know he has, an abundance of character, and the skill level he has embodies what we’re about as a team.”

“You play the game to win matches and to win series, and in the must-win games, we haven’t quite managed to do that, so of course, we’re disappointed with that. But there’ll be some great learnings taken from the tour, and some great exposure to players playing in this part of the world for the first time.”

England fans may not look back on the end result of this tour with any fondness, but if it ends up proving beneficial for the likes of Curran as well as inexperienced international players such as Liam Livingstone and Dawid Malan in the long run, England coach Chris Silverwood may well look back at this tour as the foundation for England’s upward trajectory.

We will find out soon enough just how much England have taken from this demanding tour when India themselves travel to the UK for five Tests starting on August 4. Before that though, England cricket fans have Tests vs New Zealand in June as well as white-ball battles vs Sri Lanka and Pakistan in July to look forward to. Then the T20 World Cup starts appearing, at pace, on the horizon. Oh, and then the small matter of The Ashes in Australia rounds off a hectic 2021. Much of Silverwood’s reign will be judged on how the rest of this year pans out, so he must be willing his side to start flipping the small margins around in their favour. Home comforts this summer could just prove to be even more welcome than usual.

 

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