The surprise, when India played the West Indies would have been if the hosts had saved the Test match. For even by the recent standards of their cricket, this is a side that isn’t just inexperienced but is playing like one too. But you don’t choose your opponents, neither do you pick their team and when winning is par, you are rated by how you won rather than by the fact that you did. And on that count, India will be very satisfied.
There were two big positives and the first of those was symbolic of what we can expect in the Kohli captaincy era. It has been clear to anyone who has watched him bat that there resides within Ashwin an all-rounder. His batting is built on orthodoxy, the ball leaves the bat with a very pleasant sound and a very nice velocity. The concern wasn’t, as teachers of mathematics in the culture Ashwin comes from would say, in the “fundamentals”. It was that he was batting too low and in an effort to maximise runs in available time, he was playing a lot of shots and becoming a bit loose. His batting needed an injection of reassurance and that is what Kohli and Kumble gave him when they offered him No.6.
It isn’t a bad time to move there. This series will let him get used to the responsibility, to the awareness that a pretty 28 won’t look as good as it did at number 8 or 9, to the realisation that he is no longer just the other guy in the partnership and thence, to tightening his batting. It will help him too that there isn’t a lot of T20 cricket coming his way and so he can stay orthodox which is, really, his strong suit.
I think too that he will enjoy bowling with Kumble to watch over him. Apart from their height and their naturally attacking instincts they have another thing in common. Kumble took time to discover how to bowl on overseas tracks and that learning can come well packaged to Ashwin. Like with Kumble, the discussion around Ashwin, whose bowling numbers are absolutely staggering, has tended to centre around what he cannot do, especially when playing away. He has 17 five wicket hauls and 183 wickets in a mere 33 Tests; that is one-sixth of what Tendulkar played and a hundred less than what VVS Laxman did. At 33 Tests, you are work in progress and Kumble might remind him that for all the talk around him he finished with 619 wickets!
And so, Ashwin’s ascent to number 6, and the faith from the team management, was the biggest gain for India. The second was the bowling of Mohd Shami. It isn’t easy for a fast bowler to come back after such a long layoff but it speaks enormously of the respect he commands that, across the board, leaders are so keen to play him. When he was bowling in the first innings, it seemed the wicket had gone to sleep. On it, he got wickets with pace and swing but also with bounce; something the bigger West Indians, with the exception of Shannon Gabriel’s dismissal of Murali Vijay, were unable to do. Keeping Shami fit has to be among the top priorities of the support staff for he swings the new ball and reverses the old with equal skill.
It is clear too that Umesh Yadav likes bowling under Kohli, whose preference for speed has been apparent for a long time now. I must confess I thought India would play three spinners, and I suspect I wasn’t alone in that thought, but the team management got it absolutely right. With two spinners and Ishant Sharma capable of bowling long spells if needed, Shami and Yadav can be used as they were in this Test; to simply run in and bowl fast.
West Indies are in disarray because they must wonder who, in that camp, can lead a revival. For a start, I will be surprised if they ever go in with such an insipid attack again and given that Holder and Brathwaite were both batting a number below where they can, it would suggest another front line bowler will be called up. Powerful teams use the fear in the opposition camp to their advantage and India will now be judged, not as much by whether they win the series but, like they did in this Test match, by whether they can dominate it till the end.