Inclement weather in Robin Hood county robbed the first Test between India and England of a fascinating climax. Wet spells in Nottingham are notorious for lasting longer than in most other places in England. The final day’s play was intriguingly poised: India needing to score 157 runs and the home country 9 wickets to win. Incessant rain, however, prevented any play at all.
Which way would the match have tilted had play been possible?
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It is an academic, but interesting debate nonetheless. Indian fans will point to the modest target that was to be chased down, England supporters will highlight how often visiting teams even with formidable batting line-ups have struggled to make 200 in the fourth innings in conditions suited for swing and seam bowlers.
I’d plump for India in this hypothetical scenario. The big threat was in the last hour’s play on the fourth day when England’s fast bowlers – Anderson, Broad and Robinson went full tilt. Had India lost a couple of more wickets apart from KL Rahul’s in that phase, England would have had a distinct upper hand on the last day.
That said, it was a close enough encounter for the time play was possible which must alert Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri to the dangers ahead. Pre-series projections were of an easy win for India – 4-0 or 3-1 said some experts – but England put up a stiff fight, earning as many brownie points as their opponents.
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This is perhaps England’s weakest batting side in decades. Barring skipper Joe Root, others in the top six looked mediocre. Butler and Bairstow are the most experienced after the captain, but did not play to potential. Bairstow got a few runs in both innings without looking settled or authoritative, Butler flopped in both innings.
The most assured batsman after Root was young Sam Curran who showed pluck, good cricketing sense and some fine strokes. He couldn’t make much of an impact with the ball, which is the primary reason he was in the team, but Curran’s batting should see him in this wobbly playing XI.
Root was magnificent, making 64 in the first and a masterly 109 in the second innings. He was easily the best batsman on view in the match, showing skill and resilience in conditions difficult for batting. But for Root, England would have folded up much earlier on the fourth day and probably lost the match.
Root’s efforts could have greater value than just the runs he made. This could be the inspiration England needed to become competitive in the series. If a couple of more batsmen made decent contributions, and totals swell to 325-350, it would bring enormous pressure on India, for England’s bowling is top class.
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Jimmy Anderson seems to have drunk from the Fountain Of Youth. Pushing 40, he has not lost any pace and remains arguably the world’s most daunting fast bowler with highly nuanced skills, tough mind and body, and an insatiable desire for wickets. The manner in which he prised out batsmen in India’s top order, including Kohli for a golden duck, made for fascinating viewing.
With Broad and Ollie Robinson in support, England’s pace threat is potent. Curran is perfectly placed in the supporting role to these three. What England miss is a spinner. It is inexplicable that Moeen Ali, who has an impressive record against India and is a far better batsman at this stage than young Dan Lawrence, could not find a place in the team.
From India’s point of view, clearly the top order needs to be more regimented and productive. K L Rahul, who got a chance to play because both Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal were injured, made the most of it with a fine 84 in the first innings. He had anxious moments against Anderson – who didn’t – and a couple of lives too, but showed good technique and temperament in bowler friendly conditions.
Rahul has got typecast as a white ball specialist but comes with rich experienced of first-class and Test cricket. This may well have been the turnaround innings in his Test career. Unless his form nosedives, he should play the entire series. If he succeeds, he obviously becomes primary candidate for the opener’s spot going ahead.
Kohli’s first ball dismissal can be attributed to some ill-luck. He had no time to settle down. But in the context of a two-year span, this might have more consequence. Since the 2019 World Cup, Kohli’s big scores have come down in frequency. He needs to up that. Kohli not getting substantial runs boosts the morale of the other team.
Of the others in the top order, Rohit Sharma flattered to deceive, playing a high-risk hook on the stroke of a break having done all the hard work to wear down Anderson and Co. Pujara and Rahane looked below par and Pant intent on hitting every ball to the fence, which does not work easily when the ball is swinging and seaming.
A pleasant surprise in the Indian batting was the tail wagging. Too often in the past few years, 9, 10 and jack have contributed very little. In some cases, like the WTC final, it made the difference between victory and defeat. In the first Test, India’s last three wickets put on 75 which led to a vital 95 runs lead.
From a strategic point of view, picking Jadeja ahead of Ashwin was a prickly decision. The wily offspinner has been in terrific form over the past year. At Trent Bridge, two spinners would have been a luxury. The team management seems to have stronger faith in Jadeja as a batsman and he is obviously a superior fielder which turned the decision in his favour.
Jadeja reiterated his growing stature as a batsman with a splendid half-century. He didn’t get a wicket because there was nothing in the Trent Bridge track for slow bowlers. Going ahead, I see both spinners in the side. In the second half of the summer, pitches in England tend to get drier and slower, bringing spinners into the equation.
The best aspect of the Indian team at Trent Bridge was the pace bowling. With 9 wickets in the match, Bumrah showed he was back at his best. He had not had much red ball bowling before the WTC final which showed up, but in the first Test, everything that makes him special – daunting length, sharp seam movement, clever variations – had the England batting, barring Root, tottering.
Mohammed Shami was in sizzling form in the first innings and unlucky not to have got more than three wickets. Mohammed Siraj, bowled with fire, though his inexperience came through at times when excitability cost him some control. Shardul Thakur, preferred over Ishant Sharma because India needed depth in batting, showed good craft and temperament.
Collectively, the Indian pace bowlers were probing and penetrative. As, in fact, has been the case over the past 4-5 years when the team has played overseas. There is only so much the bowlers can achieve if there is inadequate support from the batting. That problem persists.
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