A herd of goats is grazing on the grass mounds that hug the entrance of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. A bunch of youngsters is wandering in the wilderness that swamps the stadium, a concrete maze in the middle of nowhere. The gates are firmly locked. Through the grills of the gate, though, you could see the recent swish of the paint-brush and the mega-roller. Evidence that the stadium will, in a week’s time, transform into a buzz of cricketing blaze when the World Test Championship featuring the West Indies and India reels off.
The intimation of such a marquee event though is confined to a couple of rectangular maroon-painted boards that hang from the grills of gates on the northern and southern entrances: “Welcome to the World Test Championship match. Tickets are priced at 25 EC$ and 50 EC$.”
The first sentence has little resonance with the public, while the second is subject to much derision, as the local newspaper Antigua Observer notes: “The tickets, that too for a Test match, are way too expensive. Even if it were a Caribbean Premier League it wouldn’t have been sold off. And then to expect crowds is unreasonable.”
The words reflect the increasing disconnect and discontent of the island with the game, so much so that some of the islanders have even misconstrued that the inclusion of off-spinning all-rounder Rakheem Cornwall, the local boy, is solely attempted to woo local crowd to the stadium.
Just as they think Alzarri Joseph, when he’s injury-free, features in every single international match in the island. And unlike most other islands, they can’t hide in the CPL veneer, as the Antigua-based Hawkbills were disbanded in 2015. That they hardly get cricketing action at a consistent clip should have been an all the more compelling a reason to flock the stadium, but the tide to cricket that has gone from empathy to detachment. And hence, there’s hardly any whir, least of all anticipation.
Not that these variables would disenchant Virat Kohli and Co, who begin the preparations for the two-match Test series, with a three-day fixture against the West Indies Board President’s XI at the Coolidge Ground, the venue famously nurtured by the controversial billionaire Allan Sanford, then neglected after his detainment, before the WICB restored it back into a playable surface.
After the maddening whirl the World Cup was, the peace of the island, sometimes stiflingly so, should be a perfect getaway, as much as relieving as it is rejuvenating.
The glare from back home and the World Test Championship at large though, would be persistent, if not omniscient. One of the objectives of the championship is to contextualise the often un-contextual bilateral series, like the recent exchanges between these two nations, which to put it mildly, has merely helped in filling calendar spaces. The contests have been predictably patterned-reflecting the times both sides are treading, India tracing the upward curve and West Indies flickering sporadically but largely plummeting. Heck, West Indies haven’t beaten India since Jamaica in 2001.
So much so that, if this series weren’t part of the ambitious Test-Championship, it would be hard to imagine India not resting some of their regulars and taking this opportunity to blood in fresh faces and mould the reinforcements squad. Such fixtures could have eventually dwindled, once the game’s commerce and economics took precedence. And in the past the opportunity has been utilised to audition new players-in fact, Virat Kohli made his Test debut in the tour of 2011, when a host of senior batsmen refrained from the series.
It still is the theme in limited-over games, but it could be less so in the five-day games of the future. As a consequence, flawed and lengthy though the design might be, it has woven a narrative thread and intrigue, artificial but attractive. It has infused a sense of order and purpose to every game (and numbers and names to Test-match whites, much to the conventionalists’ scoffing).
Now, every Test match becomes important and there are more numbers to crunch, because there are points involved. To the effect that the dead-rubber concept could be flushed out of cricket’s lexicon, and it automatically means that a team will be forced to play its best eleven for any given match, even if it’s the fifth match of a dead-rubber.
For example, Kohli would think twice before resting his gun-bowler Jasprit Bumrah, even if he might want to keep him fresh for a more important series or tournament. Or maybe himself. For winking at him is not just a Test-series win, but 120 points that are up for grabs (one Test win brings 60 points). It could see India draw level with Australians, provided they clean-sweep England, but having played three games fewer.
He could still give him a breather-India’s bowling is pedigreed enough to still pose threat-but at the back of the mind, the grand prize will be glistening at the horizon. So a bit of conservatism at the beginning can’t be blamed.
Now that he will have to wait for another four years for a tilt at the 50-over World Cup, claiming the Test championship would be his defining legacy. Even before the installation of the Championship, Kohli had reiterated his desire and ambition to carve and helm a world-beating Test side, his motivation to be ranked not just as one of India’s finest skippers but as one of the best in the world. With the Waughs and Pontings. Hence, the agony he felt after losing a close series in South Africa, the dismay at conceding a nervous one in England and the euphoria that seized him after he led India to their maiden series win in Australia. “It could hopefully be the start to a great era of Indian Test cricket,” he had said after claiming the series.
His side definitely has the bowling ammo to be one-history teaches that it’s the first and biggest tick in achieving world domination. Lloyd’s West Indies had it. So had Waugh’s Invincibles and Pontings’ mavericks. While India’s bowlers have yet to breath from that rarified air, they have, since the addition of Bumrah. evolved into a multi-skilled, all-weather bowling firm.
The versatility of the ever-evolving Bumrah, the seam and smarts of Mohammad Shami, the swing and guiles of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the gung-ho and derring-do of Ishant Sharma, the deception of their twirly-men Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. Not to discount their depth, the likes of Kuldeep Yadav, Navdeep Saini and Yuzvendra Chahal.
The quality of batsmen, indispensable as they are, is mostly a corollary. A valid case in point is India’s own fab-four era, when they had a high-class batting unit, who, despite their valour and skills, couldn’t taste as many Test wins as they would have liked, or their stature merited. Contrastingly, the batting line-up of Kohli’s team is still a work in progress. There obviously is the skipper and Cheteshwar Pujara, both a cut above the rest. There is the precious other all-round commodity in Hardik Pandya. But there are other headaches, not throbbing but lingering.
KL Rahul’s touch is a worry. His partner Mayank Agarwal has played only a handful of games. Ajinkya Rahane has waned, his last hundred coming exactly two years ago. Rohit Sharma, despite the intermittent breaks, hasn’t quite exploded into this format. Sorting out the mess could be one of India’s largest takeaways from the series.
Sharma and Rahane reasserting themselves — there’s no better opportunity — and no more a romantic feature than Pujara, Kohli, Rahane and Sharma donning the middle-order, as was anointed at the nascence of their career.
Such a settled and classly top-order would be the fuel for Kohli’s world-conquest endeavours.
The journey would begin when the cast-iron locks of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium are unlocked.