“What’s the feeling back home and in the press about the Indian team selection,” asks a member of England team management as R Ashwin and Hardik Pandya try their best to delay the inevitable. Don’t try to guess, but it was someone decently high in the pecking order. You mumble out something about surprise and of bafflement, and he nods before adding, “Same here.” It was gloomy, rainy and they had already lost a day’s play when they went for the toss and India still picked two spinners. Having said that, would that have made a difference to the end result? Possibly not but it reflected the (questionable) thinking in the team. Does it come to the inadequacy of Indian batsmen against the moving ball? Definitely yes. Is there anything that suggested a positive improvement is just around the bend? Not really. Worse, Virat Kohli’s injury leads to further concerns for the next Test. The close loss in the first Test would keep the hope-clingers alive and kicking but the bottomline is this: After just five and odd days of Test cricket, India are two down in the series.
It was a treat to watch the wrists of the England bowlers dinking the ball this way and the other. Always there and thereabouts, mercilessly, almost sadistically, exposing the Indians’ technique. There was too much quality in the bowling for Indians to have survived. Most batting units around the world would have had problems, but with Indians, the deep-rooted flaws surfaced quickly, too easily.
It wasn’t as if they didn’t try. Take Cheteshwar Pujara for example. He went early to England but ended up with a poor run of scores. The self-doubts were evident in the nets at Edgbaston but he slowly worked his way through. The word was that he was working on trying to stay more upright in his stance than what he is used to. It doesn’t come naturally to him, but he slogged his way through. Another aspect he tried a lot in the nets was to tuck in right arm as close to the side of the body as possible: he was trying his best not to push his arms out at the ball. The combination of uprightness and hands-close-to-body worked for a while before a brute of an inswinger from Stuart Broad dismantled him.
Consider Ajinkya Rahane. Somewhere in the last 12 months or so, a certain looseness outside off has kicked in. Even at home, he was out driving away from the body. An almost uncontrollable urge to keep feeling the ball on bat. He knows it, the bowlers know it, his coaches know it but it hasn’t been easy to control. He also came early to England and played for India A. Hasn’t really worked. At least not enough to survive this English blast. His reaction after his dismissal, as his hands betrayed him almost, again dragging his bat to a ball in the corridor, said everything that needs to be said: he threw his head back, agony plastered on his face.
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Lack of confidence
Take M Vijay. One gets the feeling he is under great pressure. Rarely has one seen him so anxious as he has been in the nets. He too worked hard in training sessions but without sufficient match play, he wasn’t going to win the battle against himself. Against his instincts. Of flicking an outswinger because it was on the middle and leg line. Yesterday, he got a peach from Jimmy Anderson that cut back in to take the inside edge. Again, his reaction said it all: even as his partner KL Rahul enquired about a possible DRS, he shook his head and walked away.
Who next? Let’s take KL Rahul. The forward stride to handle swing hasn’t kicked in yet in his game, especially when he is still fresh at crease, and it wasn’t a surprise when one cut in to take him out.
And there is Virat Kohli of course. A back strain that didn’t fade away despite 20 hours of rest is a cause of worry, and it wasn’t a surprise that he couldn’t last long in the middle. He had to miss his Surrey stint and the Afghanistan Test due to injury problems and things don’t really look good. If it balloons into something serious, then India would be sitting duck for the rest of the series.
It would be a surprise if Dinesh Karthik retains his place now for the next Test. England’s bowlers never allowed him to get any momentum going, and the management might be tempted to throw in Rishabh Pant next game, in the hope a more unorthodox technique might do the trick. Hardik Pandya talks a good game, affecting a blustery nonchalance but not many would be really expecting him to turn matches with bat in these conditions. The way he used the crease in his bowling, creating various angles, was good to see but for a man whose presence is to lend balance in the team, he perhaps needs to do that a bit more. But at least he is improving.
And we would never know why R Ashwin, whose natural fluidity in batting that allows him to unfurl his hands smoothly and play swing better than most in this team isn’t promoted ahead of Pandya and Kartik. It’s perhaps the same muddled thinking that led to selecting two spinners in such English conditions.