“We never thought we would win but we had a strong team. And that pitch in Mumbai (at the Wankhede Stadium), on which they played the Ranji Trophy match (Mumbai vs Railways) three weeks ago, helped us. If they had given just the flat wicket, India would have probably won that Test. That was probably one of the biggest factors why we won the series, to be honest.”
Monty Panesar is still as intense as he used to be on the field, four years after he last graced the field in competitive cricket, as he analyses England’s famous tour of India nine years ago over a skype call. It’s that time of the year when we travel down nostalgia road, with England back on Indian shores. And Panesar has vivid memories of the 2012 tour where he was one of the vital cogs of that famous series win against India in India.
That Mumbai Test, the second of the series, was in a way a seminal point in the series and English cricket and it’s no surprise that it is the first memory that comes into Panesar’s mind. India is a tough place to tour. It can be physically as well as mentally demanding, and deflating as well. By the end of the tour, you are lying on the floor having been choked first and finally dealt a knockout punch.
England were in all sorts of chaos as they entered India in 2012. They had lost four out of five Tests in Asia (winning one) since the start of the year with their deficiencies against spin well exposed. They had lost to South Africa 0-2 at home as well in their previous series. The Kevin Pietersen saga had hit them hard before the reintegration mode was switched on. Two of their senior batsmen (Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell) were out of form and they had a new captain — Alastair Cook — leading the side on one of the most difficult tours.
Winning a series in India is one thing but bouncing back and winning a series after having lost the first Test is quite another.
That is the improbable feat England managed to achieve nine years ago on that tour.
Fast forward to Ahmedabad. India have won the toss (there goes the Test) and elected to bat. Cheteshwar Pujara’s stolid 206 not out has set the early tone for India and Pragyan Ojha’s nine wickets have rubbed salt on English spin-batting wounds, propelling India to a 1-0 lead in the four-Test series.
Thwarted and decimated by spin. Made to follow on. Lost the match by nine wickets — quite a routine on India tours.
As always, the pitch talk has started.
It is captain MS Dhoni though who isn’t impressed with the flat and slow pitch at the Motera Stadium and expects pitches that turned and had bounce right from the start.
Enter Mumbai and Dhoni’s wish is granted. A raging turner which starts spinning on Day 1. India have won the toss…again…and elected to bat.
Enter Monty Panesar, who was surprisingly left out of the Ahmedabad Test, and the tables are turned.
Despite another Pujara classic (135), India are bundled out for 327 in the first innings. Panesar’s entry is as good and stylish as his favourite actor Salman Khan’s is in Bollywood movies, as he picks up five wickets, including that of Sachin Tendulkar, with a delivery that would be talked about for years to come.
Pitched on middle. Turning away. Tendulkar playing down the wrong line. Beaten. Off stump knocked down.
How can you forget that delivery?
“Spin bowling is one of the things where you just get it right on some days. The pitch was turning on Day 1, I remember getting Sehwag out with a full ball, on the pads and onto stumps (bowled),” Panesar recalls. “And when I bowled that ball to Tendulkar, I thought I just want to hit the top of off. Bowl on middle stump, hit the top of off and get him coming to play forward. And I actually didn’t realise that he was looking to play it towards mid-wicket on that ball. I guess with that pace, it was quite quick and it drifted in. But it gripped because it was a third-day pitch on a first-day track. It gripped and with the pace. he probably thought it was going to go on with the arm, so play towards mid-wicket but it hit the top of off. It was a perfect delivery for a left-arm spinner.
When I turned it and it gripped, I was like, Oh gosh! This is just the best delivery in the world. I remember Greg Matthews, he helped me a lot in Australia, perfecting the top of off and always as a spinner he looked to hit the top of off. I thought I hope he is watching, he must be really proud of this one. But put things into context, it was an absolute minefield.”
A pitch turning from Day 1 would have had the opposition camp worried as well despite early success?
“We weren’t worried because Cook’s record was amazing on subcontinent pitches,” Panesar recalls. “It was similar to a Matthew Hayden. When we looked at the year Hayden had a great tour in 2001, it was the sweep shot (that brought him success), he was the one who scored against Harbhajan Singh, kept on sweeping him so well and we knew that Cook was so good previously in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He was so good at the crease, he probably is the best player among overseas batsmen in subcontinent pitches. And then we had the likes of Pietersen who scored quickly and knew we could put the pressure on the opposition. So we were confident, we had the likes of Trott who could bat long as well, so that combination was absolutely perfect. We had attacking batsmen and batsmen who could stay at the crease.”
Then arrives an innings of a lifetime as Kevin Pietersen cuts, drives, lofts, sweeps and reverse sweeps his way to an epic 186.
“He was brilliant but I also thought that the Indian bowlers could have been practically a bit more aware, a bit more astute,” Panesar says. They just thought that Pietersen would make a mistake but he didn’t. He was in there for a long time.”
That fire and ice partnership (Pietersen-Cook) clicks. Cook’s solidity (122) and Panesar’s discipline in the second innings (6/81) inspires the turnaround.
The seeds of a comeback though were sown in Ahmedabad through Cook’s defiant 176 in the fourth innings. A warning signal was flashed.
The Mumbai Test was the spark needed for a full-fledged ignition.
“We knew that if it’s a flat deck, we can bat long. We had the batting. But we didn’t know if we had the bowling attack to bowl India out,” Panesar recalls the mindset going into the series. “That was going to be our question mark. When we got that turning wicket in Mumbai…I remember bowling on the practice deck and it was flat. I was bowling to Joe Root and he was defending me and I was like Gosh! This is such a flat pitch. And when we saw the pitch next door to us, it was the actual wicket. We were so surprised to see that. We were like why are India giving the game in our hands? Why aren’t they just producing flat pitches and backing their own spinners that they can bowl better than our spinners. It just completely surprised us. And I think it was (Indian coach) Duncan Fletcher’s idea because he obviously thought that ‘I back spinners to bowl better on the turning pitch than the England spinners’. Yeah, that was a real surprise.”
Spin-bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed’s inspiring words had played a huge role in making sure England didn’t cave in after the Ahmedabad Test loss.
“We had a good coaching environment back then and I remember Mushy bhai (Mushtaq Ahmed) always used to tell us, ‘whenever you lose, protect the team’s confidence, let’s not go into — it was the bowlers’ fault, it was the batsmen’s fault that we lost,” Monty explains. “He used to always say let’s protect each other, the team environment. Stay as a group. We lose as a group. We win as a group. And he was really good. Whenever we lost, he was brilliant at helping the team stay together. So we didn’t really dwell on the past too much because we had Mushy bhai who knew how to play on subcontinent pitches, the conditions, he knew how the game accelerated, the field settings, everything.”
Enter Kolkata. And India have the luck of the toss with them again. Batting first. But England have the confidence.
Panesar (four wickets) and Cook (190) carry forward the momentum from Mumbai on a balanced pitch as England take a massive 207-run lead. James Anderson unfurls his reverse swing magic as India err in shot selection and catching to give England a 2-1 lead in the series.
Three matches. Three tosses lost. Three times fielding first. And still, you are 2-1 up in the series. The toss can be a huge factor in the subcontinent but it was the attitude of the English team that had neutralised its effect.
“We were a really resilient team,” Panesar explains. “We always went in to tour India with the worst-case scenario in mind – We are going to lose the toss, it’s going to be a hot day, it’s going to be a flat pitch, no grass on the wicket. It’s not going to turn. But as a team we showed good body language, we worked hard. India’s tour is always about hard graft. There is nothing easy about it. And then suddenly the game accelerated and you’ve got to go with it.
The resilience came from Andy Flower. When he played for Zimbabwe, he was a fighter. He worked hard and expected the same from the team. He wanted you to fight every session. He always believed that Test cricket was about that — mental skill, perseverance, patience and hard graft. And if we get conditions in our favour, great but Test cricket is going to be hard in India guys and we’ve got to be prepared for it. So mentally we were always like, ‘Oh we are going to lose the toss, oh Tendulkar is just going to hit a 100 pretty quickly, oh Sehwag is going to smash us everywhere. But we’ve got to stay strong in that moment. That came from the coaching staff. So we were mentally more prepared for the long haul.”
The work is only half done yet. England needs to at least draw the final Test to clinch the trophy.
Enter Nagpur. The luck has finally gone England’s way. They have won the toss and batting first.
The pitch is again in focus. It’s a sluggish one with uneven bounce, Pietersen describes it as the ‘toughest I have played Test cricket on’. The hard graft from the middle order takes England to 330. Joe Root has an impressive start to his Test career with a stoic 73.
Then Anderson shows his class again ripping through the Indian top-order again. However, Kohli (103) and Dhoni (99) spark India’s rearguard.
Slow. Slower. Slowest.
That’s how the Test progresses though. It’s all about time as the batsmen struggle to get their timing right. India declare four runs short of England’s. 10 sessions are already gone. The Test is not out of the tricky zone though. England need someone to drag them to safety. Up come two unlikely helping hands in Trott and Bell. One who hasn’t reached the three-figure mark in 19 innings (Trott) and the other in his worst slump going century-less in 24 innings (Bell). They battle hard. Trott (143) and Bell’s (116) resilience earns England a draw and the series.
India hadn’t lost a home series in eight years. England have made it happen. England hadn’t won a Test series on Indian soil since 1984-85. They have made it happen, after 28 years. This is indeed historic.
Cook’s resilience, Swann’s guile, Pietersen’s aggression, Anderson’s class, Panesar’s pace and accuracy were fascinating to watch.
The Indian spinners were outbowled by their English counterparts. 39 wickets picked up by the England spinners (37 shared between Panesar (17) and Swann (20) )were the highest since 1969-70 on Indian soil and fourth-highest overall.
The skill, experience and pace of English spinners were the game-changers. Not many sides come to India and end up outbowling their spinners.
“The Indian spinners weren’t as threatening as we thought they would be because of the pace,” Panesar says. “I remember Ravi Shastri telling me while commentating, ‘To be honest Monty, the difference is that our spinners can’t bowl it at that pace, they are not used to it, they have to bowl it slightly slower and you guys are bowling it slightly quicker and getting it to turn as well, that’s the biggest difference. The pace’.
I just don’t think Harbhajan Singh was bowling at his best, to be honest. There was a lot of onus on Pragyan Ojha, Ravi Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja. I remember KP telling me, I don’t think I can get out to this guy (Ojha), he bowls a bit too slow and you got enough time to get onto the crease, we felt like he could bowl a lot quicker but I don’t think it’s his natural pace. Look Harbhajan is a great bowler but he just wasn’t getting that bounce and we were like, what’s going on, he used to get a lot of bounce, maybe he is past his best. Ashwin was bowling well, but they had a couple of spinners who were not as threatening as we thought.”
Panesar and Swann’s partnership clicked because they had the experience of playing for years in Northampton on turning pitches. They had the experience of playing on all kinds of surfaces, in fact. They understood each other’s game well, which was a big factor.
Panesar had toured India twice before, in 2006 and 2008 and the 2012 tour was in a way a vindication for him as he had averaged 62 and 50 in the previous tours. He finished with an average of 26.82 in 2012 with two five-fors including one ten-wicket haul. Along with pace and accuracy, a hard SG ball with a prominent seam played its part.
“When you are touring India (the important thing is the) ball,” Panesar explains. “If the ball gets really soft, then it’s difficult. There’ve been some Test matches I’ve played and the ball gets really soft in subcontinent pitches and I’m not very effective to be honest. In the Tests we played during that trip, the SG ball seam always stayed hard, the ball was harder for longer, I was in the game for longer. In 2006 and other tours, the ball got really soft after 10 overs. And I was just like, ‘What am I bowling with?’. I felt I was bowling with an orange or an apple. I’ve got to turn this and it’s so difficult. The ball in India makes a huge difference if you pick a nice one out of a bunch of six then, yeah, you are definitely in the game.”
Not just being outbowled, the Indians were outbatted as well. Four of the top five run-getters were the English batsmen. It was down to conscious and meticulous preparations well in advance and one of the biggest catalysts was Rahul Dravid’s letter to Kevin Pietersen where he advised the England batsmen to bat without pads in the nets.
“Sri Lanka is actually where we started (preparing against spin about 7 months ago). We found that the batsmen were quite static in their movements. And Andy (flower) (coach) was like how do we get the batsmen to start moving their feet back and forth and get into (good) positions and KP came up and said, let’s take the pads off. And we said, yeah, everyone take your pads off and you are going to play with your bat. We can have little shin guards but try and not let it hit your feet. What we found was there were balls that were bowled quickly, sliding down leg and the guys were moving their feet so much better because they didn’t want it to hit their leg. And that’s how we started that training. I and Swanny were like ‘it’s so much harder now we are so used to the guys playing with their pads’. Their movement is so good, the balls which were turning into the stumps, they would move towards the leg stump and hit it into off side. They were not afraid of hitting some of the sweep shots because they knew it wasn’t going to hit our legs. It just changed the way we batted.”
“Rahul Dravid’s email…probably people say that may be the BCCI would ban ex-Indian players to send emails to other players if India lose again,” Panesar jests. “That was a sound piece of advice. If you want to learn how to play spin, please do it without your pads, against the turning ball, move your feet, learn how to play it and you become such a better batsman.”
— Kevin Pietersen (@KP24) January 23, 2021
Fast-forward to 2021. India are on a similar run again. They haven’t lost a series at home in years. Well, in fact, 2012 was the last time they got beaten. In THAT series at home. Root made an impressive debut on that tour in difficult conditions nine years ago. Now he will be leading the side, playing his 100th Test on this tour.
Can this English team repeat the heroics of 2012?
They are up against an Indian side that has just come back from a famous series win in Australia and have become a fire-breathing dragon at home. England are relatively inexperienced and the rotation policy has made it even tougher.
It again borders on the improbable.
Well, it also looked improbable back in 2012. And we all know what happened then.