Five days are sometimes enough to turn a bad summer around, or dent a good year. Before Rajkot, only one team could have wished for rank turners. Now, even England, who faced spiteful tracks in Bangladesh and were forced to introspect, could actually hit Vizag thinking, ‘Our spinners bowled a bit better, our batsmen tackled spin decently, so bring on the sandpits!’ India, who have been trampling the opponents with spin for a year now, were given a reality dose at Rajkot. To see Virat Kohli indulging in time-delaying tactics in the end to ensure they didn’t have to bat out many overs was sensible, yes, but also would have upped the brownie points for England.
Of course, it’s one thing to think you can handle sandpits and actually do it when faced with a crumbler, with balls jumping and skidding from front of you, where not only Ravichandran Ashwin but Ravindra Jadeja can be a real handful, but England can take heart from their Rajkot performance and not go into the rest of the series with a feeling of dread. Things might tilt back to status quo if Indians step up their game, and especially if R Ashwin — who went wicketless for 57 overs between his second and third wicket — bounces back, but at least we can now hope for a hard-fought series.
It won’t be a surprise if Ashwin rebounds in style, for he has been in glorious form, but Indian batting could do with more application. The thing with this Indian batting is that their performance in the first Test can’t be casually dismissed and put down to complacency. That would be a PR spin for there was enough iffiness and vulnerability in their batting here that suggested that this young team can be put under pressure if the bowling is decent enough. It’s not as if the talent isn’t there but the muddled thinking when faced with scoreboard pressure and hardworking spinners can result in faulty shot-making.
Take Ajinkya Rahane for instance. Runs across the globe, and even in India as well, but he can’t relax and try manufacturing shots. In other words, he can’t lull himself into an auto-pilot thinking he has a water-tight game and it’s enough to just walk to the middle and runs would flow. It’s not to say he relaxed here — we aren’t psychologists — but an honest look-in would reveal his shot selections weren’t good. In the first innings, if he thought he was VVS Laxman and could whip left-arm breaks to the on side even if they landed full on a length, he was mistaken. In the second innings, he got locked up in his position so much, intent on trying to play an offspinner against the turn, that he was stunned by a big-turning off break that ricocheted off his pads and fell on the stumps. More application is the need of the hour.
When the selectors picked Gautam Gambhir, their logic was that he is a good player of spin and would be really handy in 13 Tests at home. He sure is but he has to get past the English pacers first. The left-handed batsman got in a tangle in the first innings with his front leg sliding so far across that there was no way back to safety. In the second, an old weakness re-surfaced: he attempted to dab between second slip and gully, an almost involuntary arm-twitch with him, but the ball not only reared from back of a length but was far too close to him for that shot to have worked.
When Wriddhiman Saha walks out at the fall of the fifth wicket, and especially when Ashwin, as good a batsman as he is, has already come out one spot before, the five-bowler theory demands some solidity from Saha. You can see what he is trying to do — bat with great positivity, try to counter-attack, and seize the initiative. The approach would have been perfect if there was an extra batsman, and he comes in No. 8. His current position in the order demands a greater stability and solidity. He is at such an interesting phase as a Test player — it seems as if he almost wants to fast-track a rise in his stature. The evolution can happen of course, and can only happen if there is desire and intent, but a bit more patience can’t hurt him. In the first innings, he was troubled a bit by Adil Rashid but kept going down the track looking for big hits. In the second, too, he started off like that but ended up almost yorking himself and stabbing a return catch to the legspinner.
It was Ashwin who once again steadied the nerves with a responsible hand before he threw it away, driving a full one straight to short cover. You can’t over-analyse his dismissal especially after he showed admirable shot selection in the first innings when he pulled India out of a big hole. He is an ambitious batsman who even back in 2012, during his maiden tour of Australia, was confident that he can bat at No 6.
Finally, without Virat Kohli, India could well have ended up losing the plot on the final evening. His batting was as serene as one could be in this situation; his footwork was decisive, stretching forward or pressing back to defend compactly.
Cook lets it stew
However, it’s the England captain Alastair Cook who would leave Rajkot with better memories. And probably a bit braver. May be not. As he said: “Maybe a braver person would have set them 240 but I thought it was a fair declaration, especially in the first game of the series.”
Not many who have followed England cricket for any length of time had any doubts that he would declare earlier. Forget most of the English journalists who were absolutely sure he wouldn’t; the travelling fans were cocksure about it. A man who does a lot of scoring back in England, and travelling as a fan here, had this to say at the start of the final day. “Declare? Nah, not Cook. If anything, he might just bat the whole day!” The Barmy Army too knew their man, and not a whisper was about a declaration.
But all the travelling English fans would have been glad at one sight that unfolded on the final afternoon. To see six of their players crowd the Indian batsmen in India must have warmed their hearts. And these England spinners aren’t even as good as the lot that came in 2012. Zafar Ansari is very inexperienced, Adil Rashid was known for his profligacy in line and length, and Moeen Ali has been pushed up the batting order. This is the imagery that English fans would take from this match. Couple of players close on the leg side crouching like pickpockets at backward short-legs, one glaring down from spitting distance in the off, other mouthing something through the helmet at short-leg, another peering from short cover and not to mention the wicketkeeper behind, it must have been quite an exhilarating experience.