It took only 15 overs into the morning for Roston Chase to roll up his sleeves and start bowling his flattish off-spinners. A day before the match, Jason Holder had talked him up, suggesting his off-breaks could pose trickier question than those of Moeen Ali, who had put India through a customary torment in Southampton. If that was an intended mind game, Indians hardly ever bothered. At least by the time he trundled in, the insipidity of the Caribbean bowlers was beyond any botheration. And it was just 15 overs into the game, around the time openers generally get their eye in and begin to play a few strokes.
But when he came into bowl, India had racked up close 80 runs, steaming along at more than five an over. His introduction, thus, was a sign of abject desperation, or plain naivety. For the four bowlers stand-in skipper Kraigg Brathwaite had deployed before him, with the exception of Shannon Gabriel, were purely flaccid. Keemo Paul, who shared the new ball with Gabriel, was erratic to put it mildly, either straying down the pitch or bowling too full outside the off-stump. Prithvi Shaw plundered him for three boundaries in an over. Sherman Lewis, who replaced him and who several back in the Caribbean rave about, kept bowling as if in a daze, with neither direction nor venom.
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Brathwaite turned to Devendra Bishoo, his lead spinner, after all leg-spinners are renowned to produce magic breakthroughs at any point of the game. But Bishoo, despite almost a decade into cricket, is notoriously moody, and the worst of his moodiness surfaced. Nothing described his first spell than that old cricketing cliche—he was all over the place. He bowled flat, short, wide, full tosses, half-trackers, every sort of rubbish ball you could imagine, hardly spun the ball or threatened to beat the outside edge. So Chase, hence, was the last throw of the dice, and tellingly it came in the 16th over, symbolising the shoddy bowling effort that continued to mark a forgettable day for them.
If not take a wicket, Chase could stop the run-flow, the captain would have thought. Shaw was pulling away like an freight train, even Cheteshwar Pujara came out of the glacial slowness of his recent past, he was ticking along an nearly a run-a-ball. Brathwaite was struck for ideas, he just kept changing his bowlers, more in hope than expectation. He kept fiddling with unconventional field too — at one point there was a leg-side web of five fielders on the leg-side for Pujara, eager to snaffle his air-borne flicks. But a batsman as accomplished as him wouldn’t fall for such traps. He would then rock back, make room for himself, and cut Bishoo through the vacant acres behind point.
Bizarrely, Brathwaite changed his best bowler Gabriel after a four-over burst, opening up both ends for the Indian batsmen. Gabriel was not only working up good pace — one of them touched 149kmph, and it cut Pujara into half — but was bending the back in, changing his angles and mixing up the lengths. He beat Pujara with a back-of-length lifter than climbed into him, hurried him a few other times. But then the lone Caribbean threat was taken off, and India just plundered the runs. He was summoned for a second tilt at them towards the end of the session, but then it was too late and the contagious ordinariness of his teammates seemed to afflict him. His pace was down, he was sliding down the leg-side, and whenever he tried to correct his line, he over-reached by bowling fuller. And on a surface that was getting increasingly slower, and the ball getting ragged after the pounding, his pace hardly rattled Shaw and Pujara.
By the time the lunch relieved them of their toils, India had already amassed 135 runs. The tempo was set. From there to comeback was daunting. You could empathise with them — for one half of their revived new-ball pairing, their most experienced bowler Kemar Roach, had flown back home to attend his grandmother’s funeral. Skipper Jason Holder sprained his ankle on the morning of the Test, rendering them without their most disciplined bowler. The heat was searing. Fielding coach Nic Pothas offered his sympathies, felt for Brathwaite, and considered that restricting the hosts to less than 420 a day was commendable. Of the two, they missed the discipline of Holder more than the nuanced craft of Roach. There was no one to keep an end up, pile the dot balls, ratchet up the pressure, chasten their bowlers when they erred. When a calm head would’ve rendered some stability and allayed some of their torment, they panicked more and more, and made it obvious by setting fancy fields.
If the lunch-break offered them some respite, they didn’t come back regrouped. Instead, they, even Gabriel, served up tripe to the Indian batsmen — 30 runs off the first three overs. It finally required the wicket of Pujara to arrest the heady impetus the Indian innings had gathered. Before Lewis managed to produce the only decent delivery he bowled the entire day, India were 209/1 in 42.5 overs. Considering that they leaked only 163 runs more and picked three more wickets in the next 46.1 overs, it was an improvement, if only marginal. And Chase reciprocated his skipper’s playing-up with the wicket of Ajinkya Rahane. But it was all too late on the day to impart a new spin on the match.