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Thursday, February 25, 2021

India vs England: All to play for as WTC final beckons

India’s immediate past pink-ball experience has been bitter – 36 all out in Adelaide in December. England’s last pink-ball performance doesn’t inspire confidence either.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Ahmedabad |
Updated: February 24, 2021 7:44:44 am
india vs englandA pink-ball Test under lights, VVIPs in the smart seats, and more than 40,000 fans in the stands – the atmosphere would be electric enough to test England’s nerves.

“Give me any ball. I will bowl with that,” Michael Holding snapped at the local manager. “When Kapil (Dev) has taken nine wickets (9/83), I don’t need to choose the ball.”

That was 1983 and Motera was hosting its first-ever Test – Kapil’s newly-crowned world champions versus Clive Lloyd’s West Indies. Vijay Patel was the local manager for the Caribbean team and went to check with Holding about the ball he would prefer for India’s second innings.

Now 60 years old, Patel still remembers his conversation with the West Indies fast bowler. Back then, individual glory beckoned Indian cricket. Sunil Gavaskar was on the cusp of surpassing Don Bradman’s 29 Test hundreds. The Little Master came very close but got out on 90. History was made three Tests later at Madras.

In 2021, as the ‘new’ Motera is set for a fresh beginning, collective goals have taken precedence for the Indian team. A win here and India should be all but through to the inaugural ICC World Test Championship (WTC) final to be played at Lord’s in June. They need to win this series against England at least by a 2-1 margin. A pink-ball Test under lights is considered England’s biggest hope in the series, which is now tied at 1-1. Going beyond the hullaballoo of a grand occasion at a gigantic stadium, a lot is at stake.

The new Motera is a cross-dresser. Its size and atmosphere – even at 50 per cent capacity, a turnout of over 40,000 is expected – can make the arena a cauldron of fear and intimidation for the faint-hearted. The stadium has masked its intimidation by loosely wearing different shades of orange, yellow and blue – easy on the eye.

The Motera is ready for action

“I have seen old Motera. Back then, when it was under construction, we were state-level cricketers and the state association called us to have a discussion about the boundary size. The ICC didn’t have a set guideline for playing area then. The old Motera was built in stages. Since 1983, I saw it grow brick by brick. The new Motera is where enormity has joined hands with modernity. It makes us proud,” Patel, a former Gujarat Ranji head coach, told The Indian Express.

Appearances can be deceptive

The outfield is lush green and looks silken. The centre wicket, even on match eve, had a tinge of green. It would be interesting to see if it retains the colour when the third Test starts on Wednesday or makes way for a more clayish hue. The pink ball, with an extra coat of lacquer, will move sideways if it gets a bit of grass to play with. The conditions then would be more English – a perfect platform for James Anderson and Co to thrive on.

ind v eng India beat England by 317 runs in the 2nd Test. (Twitter/ViratKohli)

However, it is learnt that mowers would be in action, tilting the balance a bit in favour of spinners. “The pink ball does tend to swing a lot more than the normal red ball that we play with. We experienced that in the one match we played in 2019 against Bangladesh. It’s much more challenging to play with the new ball, with the pink ball, regardless of what pitch you are playing on, especially in the evening – a batting team starting its innings under lights. Yes, spin will come into play for sure but I don’t think that the fast bowlers can be ignored,” India skipper Virat Kohli said at the pre-match press conference.

Make no mistake, India have the pace-bowling wherewithal to match their opponents. After cooling his heels during the second Test in Chennai, Jasprit Bumrah will be back, in all likelihood at Kuldeep Yadav’s expense. Five years after making his international debut, Bumrah will play his first Test on his home patch. Ishant Sharma, about to play his 100th Test, and Mohammed Siraj are expected to be his seam partners, while Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel or Washington Sundar would be the two spinners. Sundar is the dark horse, if the team goes for more batting depth.

The Indian batting, up to Rishabh Pant, picks itself. For England, Jonny Bairstow’s return should bolster their batting and it’s a big possibility that irrespective of conditions, the tourists will go with a four-pronged pace attack. If England win this Test, they will return home as a successful unit, irrespective of whether they pull off a miracle and qualify for the WTC final by winning the fourth Test as well. They WTC equation for the tourists is steeper, an improbable 3-1 series victory.

The Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA), for some reason, hasn’t played up this Test that much. Their promotional campaigns have been restricted to a few banners and placards here and there, mainly inside the stadium complex. “The media has been publicising this game in a big way and rightly so. We have already sold 40,000-plus tickets (for the first day) and expecting more,” GCA joint secretary Anil Patel informed.

A pink-ball Test under lights, VVIPs in the smart seats, and more than 40,000 fans in the stands – the atmosphere would be electric enough to test England’s nerves. Kohli didn’t rule out the possibility as some of their players are touring India for the first time. The India captain, in fact, spoke about having the extra energy that “home advantage” gives.

Past experience

India’s immediate past pink-ball experience has been bitter – 36 all out in Adelaide in December. England’s last pink-ball performance doesn’t inspire confidence either – 58 all out against New Zealand at Auckland in 2018. Kohli insisted that the Adelaide batting implosion, those crazy 45 minutes, will have no bearing at new Motera. After all, India had dominated a big chunk of that Adelaide Test.

motera stadium The strip for a pink-ball Test usually has more grass to begin with than what is expected for a red-ball game. As per convention, 6mm of grass is left on the surface. (Express Photo)

England’s approach looked a tad iffy as regards to their team combination. “We’re going to take our time with the limited information we have on this ground and pink-ball cricket. You know, we are going to make sure, we give ourselves as much (time) as possible heading into the game before we make a decision,” captain Joe Root said on match eve.

All said and done, England have a bigger leeway. The tourists have already won a Test, starting as underdogs. If India lose the third Test, they will be out of the WTC reckoning. More poignantly, the Kohli-vs-Ajinkya Rahane captaincy debate will resurface.

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