When India were reduced to 2/3 chasing an improbable 464 for an unlikely win on Monday, with run machine Virat Kohli having nicked the first ball he faced in his last innings of the series to the safe hands of ‘keeper Johny Bairstow, millions of Test cricket fans in India must have wondered if the team would last till lunch next day. No one, not even the most illogically optimistic Indian fan, could have imagined that two batsmen – KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant, who had done precious little with the bat in the series till then – would be still holding fort around the same time on the final day of the Oval Test. For a while on Tuesday evening, the fans actually started having visions of India pulling off an incredible win with a record chase as Rahul and Pant put up a partnership of 200+ at over four runs an over.
In the end, it took a magic delivery, one that recalled Shane Warne’s immortal ‘Ball of the Century’ that bowled Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in the 1993 Ashes series, to dismiss Rahul, then just one short of his 150. The ripper from leggie Adil Rashid pitched on the rough a foot and a half outside Rahul’s leg stump and turned viciously to dislodge the off stump bail. There was little that Rahul – or anyone else for that matter – could have done about it. As it happens so often after along partnership, Pant departed soon thereafter while attempting a six over long-off off the same bowler. With Pant’s dismissal, the flights of fantasy that had begun soaring into the sky were brought rudely down to the ground.
Fans and critics have been aiming barbs at the boastful claim of head coach Ravi Shastri, a man who can never be accused of humility, that this was the ‘best touring Indian side’ in the last 10-15 years. But coming as it did at the fag end of the series, this partnership defined for me the new found spirit in the team that refuses to throw in the towel even when down in the dumps. The same ‘come from behind’ spirit was seen when India turned the tables on England with an emphatic 200+ run victory at Trent Bridge after going down 2-0 in the first two Tests.
The final score line of 4-1 is unduly flattering to England; 3-2 would have been more like it. The difference between the two sides for me was the batting of the English lower order that repeatedly pulled the team out of trouble after the top order caved in. If it was Chrish Woake who did at Lord’s, Sam Curran did it twice, first at Edgbaston and Southampton. In contrast, there was no such redeeming act from the Indian tail in any of the 10 innings. With the top order in both sides failing repeatedly, it was the spirited batting by the English lower order that tilted the scales in favour of the home team. It allowed England to escape from 86/6 in Edgbaston and 87/7 at Southampton to put up a score that proved a handful for the Indians.
While England were deserving winners, there were a few positives India can take heart from. At the top of the heap was the splendid show by our pace bowling trio – Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah – who repeatedly put the English batsmen on the mat. Shami, in particular, was a revelation. The fast bowler from Kolkata, who can be both exciting and exasperating, showed a level of consistency not seen in him so far. He looked menacing at all times, frequently beating the bat. Ishy was his usual disciplined self, but with an added sting to his bowling not seen often. With his big, booming inswingers, Bumrah too posed a constant threat to the batsmen. One can only imagine what would have been if Bhuvenswar Kumar, our best bowler in such conditions, had been available for the series.
The second positive, of course, was the batting of Kohli. The Indian captain, who scored just 134 in 10 innings in his last tour of England, was phenomenal throughout the series scoring 593 runs, the highest on either side. Jimmy Anderson must be ruing his statement during the series in 2016 that Kohli’s ‘flaws’ in technique, which remained hidden on the flat pitches in India, would be ‘exposed’ in England. Well, what was ‘exposed’ instead was the inadequacy of the England bowlers in hime conditions when it came to the man rated the best in the world at the moment. The fact he could not dismiss Kohli even once during the series was ‘just desserts’ for the champion bowler.
In hindsight, one would like to believe that India could have still pulled it off had it not been for a few selection bloomers that have become the trademark of Shastri’s stint as coach. It happened in South Africa, where Bhuvneswar was dropped in the second Test after a splendid show with both bat and ball in the first, and again in England this time. For reasons known only to itself, Pujara was dropped for the first Test. Then at a prodigiously seaming wicket at Lord’s, India had two spinners in the team! It is not clear what was the thinking behind picking Kuldeep Yadav, the ‘second’ spinner in the team, at Lord’s and then giving him just seven overs before packing him off to India. Shastri sure is a poor reader of the wicket. The obstinacy in persisting with Hardik Pandya, despite ample evidence that he is not a good enough batsman to deserve the ‘all-rounder’ tag at the Test level yet, was another selection bloomer that cost the team dearly. And R. Ashwin, our ‘No. 1’ spinner, failed to create an impression on the English batsmen when it mattered the most at Southampton even as Moeen Ali, his counterpart in the rival team, scalped nine.
If India do an honest post-mortem of what went wrong and put in place the required remedies, we can certainly hope for a better outcome in Australia this winter, especially since the Kangaroos are a much depleted side now in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner, their best batsmen who are facing a one-year ban for ball tampering.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).