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All hail the conquered heroes

India deserve more than their fair share of the plaudits

England v India 2018

What a series! For once the epithet ‘epic’ does not feel hyperbolic. The man who proclaims “I feel epic” in the advert for MoneySuperMarket was not talking about the cricket but he might just as well have. How on earth did it end up 4-1 in England’s favour? It is difficult to think of any similar sporting contest when the scoreline has so inadequately reflected what actually transpired out there on the pitch. The ebb and flow of each match, each day, each session, was classic Test match cricket, a welcome antidote to the instant gratification of the crash-bang-wallop of T20.

But I do not want to mull over the series itself and its place in the pantheon of memorable encounters. The press and TV have already done that. No, my attention turns to one aspect of the contest that has, in my opinion, been sadly neglected. In recent years, England-India series have not been conducted in the best of spirits. Indeed, the atmosphere between the two sides has been far from friendly, vitriolic on occasions. On their last tour of England in 2014, the Indian captain reported Jimmy Anderson to the ICC for an unpleasant incident, alleging the England fast bowler had instigated a physical and verbal altercation with one of his players. England vehemently denied the charge. An unseemly spat between Anderson and Ravindra Jadeja had indeed taken place in the corridor of the Trent Bridge pavilion at lunch on the second day of the Test but it had been a case of six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. Who was right and who was wrong – or perhaps both were culpable – was never clearly established but the resentment on both sides continued to simmer. It seemed that there was always an ‘edge’ between the two sides, emanating from the days, I suppose, when India were keen to shrug off the historical influence of their colonial masters following independence.

All that nonsense was put aside during this gripping series. Past slights were forgotten. There were no lingering feuds, no arguments, no prolonged quarrels, no squaring up, no pointing and swearing. The players just got on with the game, absorbed in the many battles taking place, as were we, the spectators. Of course, this is how the game should always be played but sadly it isn’t. For this unusual but agreeable outbreak of sportsmanship, I do believe the Indians deserve more than their fair share of the credit. A captain is responsible for the behaviour of his team and usually, if the two captains get on and respect each other, an amicable series is guaranteed. Gower and Border were good mates before Border resolved there would be “no more Mr Nice Guy” and he reverted to Mr Grumpy….and Australia started winning (though their popularity did plummet). Botham and Richards were bosom buddies but the West Indies were serial winners in those days. Virat Kohli by contrast came here with a reputation as a bit of a tricky fellow who couldn’t score runs in England. On both counts, he proved us all wrong. No need for me to praise his peerless batsmanship; his record speaks for itself. It was his sportsmanship – I’m almost tempted to call it statesmanship – that stood out and surprised us all. He and Joe Root appeared to have a perfectly cordial relationship, which persisted from the toss to post-match handshakes. Their teams followed suit, which is as it should be.

The Test matches were fiercely contested, with no quarter asked and none given. The struggle between country and country, bat and ball, bowler and batsman was almost visceral in its intensity and was riveting to watch. These were not occasional passages of play; every session seemed to veer one way or the other and back again. I have a theory. When you have two teams equally matched going at each other hammer and tongs, with each day that passes the players realise they are taking part in something very special and their respect for each other grows exponentially. Rather like two boxers who have shared a lung-busting bout, exchanging blow for blow, neither gaining the upper hand or finding the knock-out punch, they fall into each other’s arms at the final bell, too exhausted to indulge in histrionic triumphalism. Remember the picture of Bobby Moore and Pele swapping shirts and an embrace at the end of a memorable World Cup game? Or Jack Nicklaus ceding a putt to Tony Jacklin on the final hole to share the Ryder Cup? Or Andrew Flintoff bending down to console a distraught Brett Lee after a brave and excruciatingly tense last wicket stand in the famous 2005 Ashes series? On all these occasions – and there are many more – the players involved instinctively realised in that moment that the contest had been more important than the result. They wouldn’t admit it – no professional sportsman would – but finer sensibilities had for a second or two superseded their competitive instincts.

The reaction of the Indian team when Cook was finally out for 147 in his last Test innings said it all. Every single one of them sprinted up to shake his hand as he walked off. And every one of them stood respectfully aside during the prolonged ovation he received when he reached his hundred. There was no slouching, no sitting down or reclining bored and impatient on the grass. Usually it is accepted etiquette for both teams to exchange handshakes in a line on the outfield at the conclusion of a match. Did you notice that Kohli made his team stay off the pitch so that Cook and Anderson could acknowledge the crowd’s appreciation alone and uninterrupted as they walked off the field? Handshakes were exchanged on the steps of the pavilion. Furthermore, I felt that the post-match interviews in which both captains paid homage to the fine cricket played by their opponents were more genuine than the cliché-ridden platitudes normally on offer.

So, full marks to the Indians for playing their part in a memorable series. If this sounds patronising, it is not meant to be. England had won the Pataudi Trophy by a seemingly comfortable margin. Anderson had broken the record for the number of Test wickets by a fast (or fastish!) bowler and Cook had been sent into retirement with a fairy tale ending. Very satisfying for the home crowd. But the England team knew they had been in a battle. Next time, the score could easily be reversed, especially on Indian wickets. If that is the case, let us hope England play as well away from home as India did here. And if they do not prevail, they depart from that country with respectful applause ringing in their ears.

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