The first Test between England and India at Birmingham in Edgbaston is truly a historical moment for the longest format of the game. England playing their 1000th Test match since the inaugural one in 1877 is a remarkable achievement. England needs to be commended for keeping Test cricket alive through the seriousness of how they perceived the game through the ages. Cricket, they said, was a way of life. This was because of the uncertainty and the ups and downs that the game brought and the way in which one tackled the situation that arose. The game spoke of character, tenacity, sportsmanship and fair play. Winning and losing was not as important as the way in which one played the game. Today, however, cricket is no more a gentleman’s game, but one that has become a serious occupation for cricketers and much more than a sport for the spectators.
Test cricket, with men in whites in the midst of a lush green background, is a sight pleasing to the eye, especially when the battle is intense between the bowler and the batsman. This is exactly what one is witnessing in the Test match currently taking place at Edgbaston.
The five-Test series between India and England has plenty of interest for Indian cricket fans. India, the number one side in the world, one feels, has the ability to conquer England and establish their dominance in world cricket. This will not be an easy task for them, as they will need a phenomenal amount of strategising and planning. To play five back-to-back Tests over a period of one-and-a-half-months is a tall order for any touring side and the fitness of the Indian side will be tested to the hilt. The recovery time from minor niggling injuries or exhaustion becomes so much shorter. It will require coach Ravi Shastri and his band of support staff to play their part effectively. This can only be achieved through some strong and forthright decisions. India, despite being the top ranked Test side in the world, is still not looking like a settled unit. In the last 36 matches, they have not fielded the same side and this chopping and changing is definitely not a comforting sign. One of the reasons being the success of young Indian players doing well in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the U-19 tournaments and the India A sides. Indian selectors now have the choice to pick from many talented players and therefore a few failures or changes in match conditions make them overreact to the situation.
The selection of the playing XI for the 1st Test is a good example of thinking too much. The climate in England this summer is hot and dry. Although the Duke ball that is in use at present retains its seam and hardness far better than balls used in any other country, the choice of selecting a pace bowler in place of an additional spinner was quite surprising. Kuldeep Yadav was the bowler that England dreaded most, especially after the way he performed in the limited-over games earlier. Their concerns were further highlighted when they got local Chinaman bowler Akhil Patel to practice against, hoping to counter the magic of a Kuldeep’s assault. The English batsmen must have breathed a sigh of relief when the playing XI was announced sans the Chinaman bowler. The Indian side also had the option of a left arm spinner in Ravindra Jadeja, who has been successful against England earlier as well as in the last Test India played against Afghanistan. He must be wondering as to what he should do to get back his place in the side. Apart from his bowling, Jadeja is a wonderful fielder and lends depth to the batting down the order. A left-right combination can be useful to disturb a bowler, as he would need to change his direction and at times his length as well. The conditions in England are always challenging and good technique is very important. The ability to leave deliveries is as important as playing them. The master among the present lot of Indian batsmen is Cheteshwar Pujara. His omission was another strange decision. Although he has not been in the best of forms, he has been playing cricket for over two months in England and needed just one innings to regain confidence. India needs players like him to grind the bowlers to the dust as Test cricket is not dependent on strike rate, but as to how one can tire the opponent bowlers. Two of India’s greatest batsmen, Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid, were the best exponents of this.
India will need some clever thinking from this match onwards, as the outcome of the series will depend a lot on the continuity and to do so, they need to finalise their core team quickly. There could be a few failures but it is important to persist with the chosen ones rather than chopping and changing excessively.
The two master batsmen of the present day who are also the respective captains, Joe Root and Virat Kohli, have started their innings positively. This is wonderful for the series as a lot will depend on how they carry on from here. The fortunes of their teams’ performance seem to rest largely on their shoulders.
The Indian close-in fielding is not up to the mark as yet. This is one area they need immense improvement in. Fielding with protective gloves and soft-balls during practice is not the solution. The hands need to get used to the hard ball and there is no other way to it.
I still feel India has the arsenal to beat England. But how prudently they accomplish it will be the million-dollar question.
(The writer is a former India cricketer)