It’s great to be where it’s happening before it actually happens. Like in the morning at The Oval. Not a whisper of hope about any minor miracle then. No sixth sense kicked in. The afternoon broke out with a rash of shots from KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant even as Joe Root, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali trundled out uninspiring spells. The Indians kept smoking them away. At some point, during that cloudy late afternoon period, the Indian fight began to register its presence. It couldn’t be ignored. The crowd sensed it and began to get behind England. ‘C’mon Jimmy’. Claps. ‘Give the ball to Broady’.
The evening brought in a breeze of hope. And with it pressure. James Anderson, who was out of action for large parts in the day, rushed in like a man possessed. The Indians had wilted in this series in those moments. There but not quite there. What would they do now? Rahul and Pant seemed in the mood for a fight. The crowd grew restless. The sporadic shouts of encouragement got more frequent. The Indians fought on.
Until, real pressure arrived in the form of Anderson. Until serious pressure came in with the match situation: a possibility of a draw peeked out at them. As they have done through the series, England seized those moments.
Root, whose insipid captaincy had much to do with the drifting state of affairs, finally did two things right. This was also the period when vice-captain Jos Butler started to make frequent visits to his captain. They took two decisions: bringing in Anderson, and not take the new ball. Things started to turn. Ball after ball in the zone built up pressure.
Rahul was still looking good but he had now begun to defend. He got stuck in the 140s – not a bad place to get stuck of course but he got nine runs from 43 balls after getting to 140, and the pressure kept ratcheting up. Anderson still couldn’t find someone who could do the job along with him.
Rashid’s Youtube moment
Until Rashid stepped up. He suddenly began to find a fuller length and started to ping the rough outside the leg stump for Rahul. He ripped one across and it took a life of its own during the course, re-birthing as if it was sent out by Shane Warne. It kicked off the rough and spun sharply, about 10 degrees of turn, and ripped past a startled Rahul who had presented his pad as a shield. No luck. The ball shot past him, on to the off stump. A dream delivery. A YouTube moment for Rashid. His second for the summer, after the Kohli ball that got him into the Test team.
He then turned his attention to Pant. From round the stumps, with a round-armish action, he whirred a few into the wicketkeeper-batsman. Then from a similar angle came another ball, but this was the googly. Pant tried to clear long-off but it skied off the outer half and landed in the hands of long-off. Game over.
The new ball was taken after a while and when the last hour started, 15 overs remained. India’s last hope for a draw was Ravindra Jadeja. England’s choice of weapon was the boy who won them two games, Sam Curran, who produced a curler to take out Jadeja. Then came the Anderson moment. With the crowd fully behind him, the veteran, who has bowled magnificently in this game and right through the series, nipped one back to peg back Mohammed Shami’s middle stump —- off ran Anderson into a celebratory run to nowhere before he turned and enveloped his friend Alastair Cook. One last bear hug for England.
It’s been a strange series. Was England so good to win 4-1? Nope. Was it all one-sided? Of course not. India came close at Edgbaston, beaten by conditions at Lord’s, came back in Nottingham, called the shots at Southampton but let it slip, and chased the game here throughout and needed a minor miracle to stave off defeat. They tried but couldn’t. The skill to complete the job, the ability to soak up pressure and triumph eluded them this series. The postmortem can wait a day. In the here and now, let’s turn to Rahul and Pant.
Rahul can be a gorgeous batsman to watch. The kind that makes purists salivate. The high elbow, the side-on movement, the graceful leaning of the upper body, the arcs that the bat cuts – but he had been reduced to cosmetic effect in this series.
Heart and guts
Stuck in the crease, stuck in a nightmare, rendered ineffective. For a brief while in Nottingham, he had stirred but that was it. Did he have the fight in him? Did he have what Ravi Shastri keeps talking about: the heart and the guts. “Dum chahiye boss,” he would say about the secret to succeed in Test cricket. For four Tests, he was almost a walking wicket. An inflatable batting doll. A model in pristine whites, full sleeved but a mannequin of a batsman. Something stirred here in the final Test. Life blew in to the doll. He was up and about.
He had given hints in the first innings about the way he wanted to go. He took risks, played some shots that raised eyebrows, but you understood his intent. No use standing and succumbing tamely, let me do something. The pitch, of course, helped. Flattest of the five. He could take calculated risks. Though he fell in his 30s, he had found himself on the right path, out of the woods.
A batsman with a traditional technique like him can’t just stand and deliver. For his batting elements to come through, fall in place, he has to get into the right positions. He can’t invest everything in hand-eye coordination. He needs to move. For that, he perhaps needed that fiery intent to almost rouse himself into action. It had started late Monday evening when he cut a ball from Anderson that seemed homing into off stump. There wasn’t much room, the new ball was rushing in like a blur, but Rahul collapsed his arms, cutting out the need for space and somehow pulled off a spanking cut. It looked beautiful, gasp-worthy, but was also risky. But it became clear he wasn’t going to go down wondering. He would attack.
Tuesday morning and afternoon made sense, when seen through that prism. The bowling was largely listless and Rahul kept driving, cutting, pulling, hooking, and even pulled out the paddle sweeps. A walk all around the ground, through the stands, allowed one to notice a gentle drowsiness among the crowd in the afternoon. There but not really watching.
In the pavilion complex, inside the cricket museum, curator Bill Gordon, who used to be part of the groundstaff for 49 years at the ground, sat overlooking the oldest bat in history and other such curios. “You realise they can draw this game, don’t you?” says the old man. He is dead serious. “There is nothing on that wicket and Indians are going well. They seem to want to do something special.” The Oval crowd thought that there was something on. It had a lot to do with that elusive thing called heart and fight. Indians were in the mood for it. But they couldn’t cross the line.