IT’S the hope that kills you.
England’s performance in the opening Test in Rajkot suggested that they might just compete with India after all.
England had the better of that drawn affair after dire predictions of a 5-0 whitewash.
However, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”, and no sooner had the sides arrived in Visakhapatnam for the second Test than the wheels started to come off for the touring team.
Defeat there by 246 runs was followed by an eight-wicket hammering in Mohali, an innings defeat in Mumbai and, finally, another innings defeat in Chennai yesterday.
A 4-0 beating was a fair reflection of India’s superiority.
Rajkot apart, it was as bad a tour as England could have had.
Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote a famous book entitled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
It serves as an appropriate description of this England side too.
Good one minute and bad the next, they are a split personality at Test level, whereas their one-day cricket since last year’s World Cup has exhibited much more stable characteristics.
Regardless of improvements in the white-ball game, Test cricket remains the pinnacle, however, and England’s present world ranking of fifth out of 10 reflects their fair-to-middling status.
A top team would not have lost their last six wickets for 15 runs yesterday on a pitch on which Karun Nair, the previous day, scored an unbeaten triple hundred out of India’s 759-7 declared.
But England are not so much a top team as a group of talented individuals who are yet to gel into a consistent unit under captain Alastair Cook and coach Trevor Bayliss.
Cook’s position as leader is hanging by a thread; after the series finished yesterday, he wore the haunted expression of someone who had just encountered Mr Hyde.
Having gone into the series publicly casting doubt on his own future as captain, Cook clearly has much to ponder before meeting director of cricket Andrew Strauss in the new year to discuss his future.
There are many who would say that this key decision should be taken out of Cook’s hands and Joe Root given the reins so that he has as much time as possible to prepare for next winter’s Ashes.
Throughout the tour, Cook has been exposed in terms of tactics and team selection, although the issue of selection – a self-inflicted wound – is a responsibility that must be collectively borne by the England hierarchy.
Put simply, it has been mystifying at times, both in terms of personnel picked and the composition of the side as regards seam/spin balance.
For much of the winter, England have been playing with 10 men and on the back foot before a ball has been bowled, complicit to a greater or lesser extent in their own downfall.
Amid the humiliating wreckage of yesterday’s defeat, with no side scoring more in Test history than England’s 477 in the first innings and yet still going on to lose by an innings, Cook described the series as one of “missed opportunities”.
He was right, for he won four of the five tosses and yet his team consistently failed to post big enough scores. India’s batsmen were hungrier, more ruthless, and more prepared to knuckle down and fight.
In contrast, England too often gave away their wickets, with yesterday’s collapse a prime example.
An opening stand of 103 between Cook and Keaton Jennings appeared to have made the draw favourite, only for England to slip to 129-4 as both were followed back to the pavilion by Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, who both narrowly failed to break Michael Vaughan’s record for the most Test runs by an England batsman in a calendar year.
For the record, Root finished with 1,477 and Bairstow 1,470 to Vaughan’s 1,481 in 2002.
The rot really set in, though, when Moeen Ali inexplicably tried to smash left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja into the middle of next week and was caught at mid-on.
To describe Moeen’s shot as the shot of a headless chicken would be an affront to headless chickens.
Put simply, it was dreadful, and there were one or two other dismissals that were not far behind him.
Throughout the series, England paid for dropped catches, although India’s fielding was not great either.
Indeed, England’s defeat yesterday could have been even more grisly had a couple of chances not gone down.
Afterwards, the damning verdicts of three former England players seemed to sum things up perfectly: “Diabolical” – Nasser Hussain; “Embarrassing” – Ian Botham; “Roobish” – Geoffrey Boycott.
There is no shame in losing to a better side, but the manner of England’s demise was difficult to digest.