Updated: July 1, 2022 6:49:46 pm
Between the Oval Test in September last year and the Edgbaston Test that begins on Friday, the world, both real and sporting, has changed. The Covid-19 virus doesn’t strike as much fear as it used to back then — support staff testing positive sufficed to stop the series then, but now the Indian captain is out of the game with a positive test and a stand-in has been named; eastern Europe has become a battlefield; Australia finally became the T20 World Cup champions; two new teams were formed in the IPL and one of them lifted the trophy; both England and India have a different coach and captain; there is a full crowd in the stands.
So vast the changes have been that the Edgbaston Test seems not so much a decider as a standalone fixture. A one-off Test in both schedule as well as spirit, an inequitable climax to what was a glorious Test series. It’s akin to the unfolding climax of a whodunit ripped off and sewn up into a short movie released 10 months later with a different set of directors and lead men, in a different mood and background, and a few changes in the cast. It’s almost a different entity in itself, but of neither standalone nor part-of-the-whole value. Like a satellite perhaps.
As such, a one-off Test is flawed in nature. The blink-and-it-is-over nature does not sync with the soul of Test cricket in that it could not be a stern and sustained examination of a team’s character or competence. Moreover, it widens the already existing gulf between sides, apart from robbing the slow-burning thrills of a full-fledged series that presents both teams, more so the visiting sides, a level-playing field, an opportunity to bounce back and make the series an evenly-matched one.
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It’s especially harder for a side from the subcontinent in England. From weather to light, from the shots to play and those not to play, from SG to Dukes balls, from lengths to hit and lines to probe, from dry decks to moisture-hewn surfaces, from half-sleeve shirts to jumpers, the adjustments they have to make are wide-ranging. A fortnight and a non-first-class game, for a side that last played a Test three months ago, would hardly qualify as a meaningful acclimatisation process either.
By the time you reacquaint with Test cricket and get a measure of the conditions, the Test would already have been decided. For all its reputation as a friend of spinners and batsmen, Edgbaston offers substantial assistance for seamers on the first day. There are a string of first-innings low-totals at this ground, including Pakistan’s 72 a decade ago. And as the age-old cricketing truism goes, it takes a session to lose a Test match. Fathom that — hard yards of an entire summer undone by a session. More so in England, where the match unpacks in a searing hurry.
The only advantage, for the sake of arguing, is that players needn’t worry about self-preservation, the psychological clutch of lasting an entire series. They could go at full throttle, especially the gifted seamers in the arsenal of both sides.
But, to consider this Test as a continuation, least of all a decider, of a nail-biting series spread over three months, is a travesty of justice, albeit an unavoidable one in the circumstances. Had the fifth Test been scrapped altogether, it would have denied England a shot at levelling the series, besides the loss of massive broadcast revenue as well. It is not the ideal closure, but an inevitable one.
The consequence is the absolute shift in the mood of both teams. The scale of advantages is tilted in England’s favour — they are playing at home and on a red-hot winning streak. Nothing perhaps has transformed as discernibly as the spirit in the England dressing room. Back then, England were forlorn, bereft of fight and belief after thrashings in India and at home against New Zealand. Now, with Ben Stokes at the helm and Brendon McCullum as philosopher-coach, they are an irresistibly aggressive group, gritting their teeth in vengeance after tearing New Zealand apart. Against India last year, they were afflicted with self-doubts, adopted strange tactics and seemed to prioritise the T20 World Cup than the Test series.
The fervour in the Indian camp, too, was different. The defeat in the World Test Championship had crushed their pride and they wanted to prove that it was an aberration. And in phases during the series, they had summoned the unsurmountable spirit of the Australia tour. Had India avoided defeat in Old Trafford, it could have shaped Kolhi’s legacy as a captain, or perhaps he would still be the captain. Had England lost, the Bazball era could have dawned months earlier.
But now, India have to find the impetus as the match unravels. England are a sturdy furniture intact; India have to assemble one. England have a set pattern; India are settling into one. In short, whereas England have emboldened, India have plateaued, since the Oval Test. Routine series wins at home apart, they squandered a lead to lose the series in South Africa.
Little doubt that they have the manpower and wherewithal to produce a masterful performance and mock at the lack of exposure with a fine performance. But given them a choice, they would have preferred a longer build-up or a longer series. It was no coincidence that they dominated England in the last tour because they had spent nearly a month in the country before the series. They landed just before the Euros began, and when they left, Neeraj Chopra had bagged the country’s first Olympic gold medal in track and field and Novak Djokovic had worn another Wimbledon crown. There was time for Rishabh Pant to catch Covid and recover, Shubman Gill to fly home with an injury and return and for Ravichandran Ashwin to snare six for 27 in a county game for Surrey.
Though the overlarge sojourn was due to the WTC finals and the strict Covid protocols, such accidents of fate turned out to be a blessing. Then captain Kohli admitted as much in the pre-series interaction with the media: “The situation allowed us to get acclimatised to the weather because it can change quite drastically and quite quickly. At the same time playing under different changes in conditions in terms of weather – whether it is overcast, or it is sunny, how the pitches behave, how the ball travels, how much it swings in the air.”
But, all the hard work of those three months would boil down to five days, or fewer, separated by 10 months. A span wherein the world has changed.
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