Among the more bizarre features of American sport are the mercy rules, whereby it is understood that, say, schoolboy soccer teams that quickly go 3-0 up are expected to ease off and try not to humiliate the opposition.
In Britain we normally reserve that kind of welfare statism for real life. But until mid-afternoon on Monday it appeared as though the notion had spread to the England cricket team. With the Test series already won, the possibility of a 4-0 whitewash was receding to vanishing point.
No wicket had fallen all day; with only three wickets down, India were close to equalling England’s first-innings total; and time was running out. All the focus was on Sachin Tendulkar and the quest for an unprecedented 100th international century, which looks not just inevitable but predestined.
Well, mercy me. In one hour and 20 minutes, India collapsed for 262 for three to 283 all out. Even by their recent standards, that was spectacular. England won by an innings and eight runs. Four-nil it was, and India were lucky to get the nil.
The biggest casualty was not India’s self-esteem, which must have gone weeks ago, but Tendulkar’s masterplan. He had reached 91, all without showing his normal fluency. “Nine lives Tendulkar!” shouted one spectator, which was unfair. He only had five – a stumping on Sunday night, when England failed even to appeal, two dropped catches and two very palpable lbw appeals, both rejected.
He had actually been outplayed by his partner, Amit Mishra, the notional night-watchman who looked far more secure than most of the specialist batsmen – and indeed more Tendulkaresque than his partner in his strokeplay. The crowd – which included far more Indian supporters than on previous days – were getting worked up about Tendulkar’s landmark. All India was no doubt doing the same. And one can’t help thinking that the great man himself may have been seduced by the stat, only recently discovered in the depths of Wisden and brought to public consciousness, rather than the need to save the game.
England were whiling away the overs until the new ball was due when Swann bowled Mishra for 84. The captain Andrew Strauss immediately brought on Tim Bresnan to attack the new batsman from the other end. He got an unexpected bonus. Tendulkar was rapped on the pad, and the Australian umpire Rod Tucker gave him out. Tendulkar lingered, for longer than is considered seemly. (“They came to see me bat, not you umpire,” as W.G. Grace once said.) The decision was marginal, but fair. There was no TV review of lbws in this series anyway, at India’s insistence.
There can hardly have been more disbelief on this ground in 1948 when Sir Donald Bradman, in his last Test innings, was bowled for a duck. Even Tucker may have surprised himself, since he presumably wants to umpire in India again. (“Very brave decision,” as Sir Humphrey used to say in the BBC comedy Yes Minister. “Very brave.”)
The response of the Indian dressing room was ritual mass suicide. Swann, who took the last four wickets for seven runs, thoroughly deserved his success, but there were some shoddy shots, from the captain M.S. Dhoni most of all. It was over before tea. England were presented with not only the usual baubles but – for the first time – the ceremonial mace that is their reward for going top of the Test rankings.
But it did look fearsome rather than pretty – like a barber’s pole topped by a weapon used in mediaeval battles. Strauss handled it warily. It will be kept (absurdly) in the England and Wales Cricket Board offices and not displayed alongside the Ashes in the Lord’s museum.
Strauss has earned his right to wield it, though. For all India’s failings, England could hardly have played better: they are not just a gifted team, they are a relentless one.