On what was a far-from-perfect 50-over game of cricket for the Indians at Lord’s on Friday, it was the subtle, symbolic seating pattern in the background that often proved more compelling than the action in the middle, especially after Virat Kohli got out and Ambati Rayudu retired hurt.
Lets begin with the practice match first and then proceed to the ‘musical chairs’ in the visiting team’s balcony, as it appeared from one hundred yards with Ravi Shastri making his first appearance at the helm after being parachuted into the job on Tuesday.
For those who care about results, the Indians notched up a flattering 95-run victory against Middlesex after being bowled out for 230 at the very site of their most memorable outing of a most forgettable Test tour. However, the way the visitors started, they appeared to have picked up not from Lord’s of July 21 but from the Oval of August 17.
In what was a seriously underwhelming batting performance, India’s top order got out early to some questionable shot selection; Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma charged down the track only to offer easy catches at mid off and third man respectively. And Ajinkya Rahane, who had hit a memorable hundred here a little over four weeks ago, struggled before holing out at mid on. India were 52 for three after 13 overs.
The closing stage of the innings was even more shambolic — and, therefore, in line with the rest of the tour — as the last six wickets fell for a mere 74 runs. And while there wasn’t a Moeen Ali in the opposition camp, six wickets in all fell to Middlesex’s spinners. Ollie Rayner alone took four of those in his nine overs with his gentle left-arm spin, which has yielded him exactly four wickets in nine previous games across formats.
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But this pathetic beginning and equally dismal finish bookended what was a spectacular batting performance by the hitherto dormant Kohli and a fresh-off-the-boat Rayudu. The middle-order duo struck attractive half centuries and shared a brisk 104-run partnership to dig the Indians out of a hole and put them on track for a massive score. That the team jumped right back in once Kohli got out is another matter.
During the course of his 71-run innings, Kohli, who has endured the worst form of his six otherwise sensational years in international cricket, started tentatively against a still-new white ball. There was a Steve Finn delivery that rose off a length and nearly took the outside edge off Kohli’s bat, but that was the closest the county side came to troubling him for the next one and a half hour.
In which time Kohli conjured up the Kohli of the not-so-distant past, uncovering the trademark inside-out drive over extra cover and hitting equally exquisitely through mid on and midwicket.
He was especially severe on the Indian-origin left-arm bowlers, pacer Gurjit Sandhu and spinner Ravi Patel, distorting their figures. Eventually, Patel had him caught behind, but England may be left wondering if Middlesex had released the Kohli-genie out the bottle.
At the other end, Rayudu matched Kohli shot for shot. The Indians were staring down the barrel when Rayudu, and not Suresh Raina, came out to bat at No.5. By the time he walked back after making 72 (retd.) — and given the fact that Raina batted way down at 11 and didn’t really impress — Rayudu had staked a reasonable claim for a place in starting eleven for the first ODI at Bristol on Monday.
After Rayudu left, the wheels came off. In the end, however, the margin of the victory (after all Indian bowlers got wickets) papered over the cracks. Director Shastri smiled indulgently in the balcony as the players walked back to loud cheers from a large and predominantly expat crowd at Lord’s.
Which brings us to the ‘musical chairs’ part. The way Shastri and coach Fletcher exchanged places in the pavilion during the match mirrored the dramatic changes that have taken place since the Oval Test. Fletcher was in the box seat, and Shastri firmly in the background, when the Indians underwent early hiccups, recovered and slipped back again.
When the situation worsened further, Fletcher got up and went in and Shastri took his place. He could be seen having an intense discussion with Rohit Sharma and Stuart Binny — both of whom disappointed on Friday — and had a chat with the newly arrived assistant coach, Sanjay Bangar. The crisis manager stayed there well after the Indians wrapped up the match.
Could Shastri’s mere presence in the driver’s seat have a similar impact on Team India’s fortunes for the rest of the tour? India sure will hope so.
Brief scores: India 230 all out in 44.2 overs (V Kohli 71, A Rayudu 72 retd hurt; O Rayner 4/32). Middlesex 135 all out in 39.5 overs (K Sharma 3/14). India won by 95 runs.