Ten random thoughts:
1 India won a Test at Lord’s after 28 years. More importantly, they won an away Test for the first time since mid-2011. This was also their first away Test win post Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar. India’s top five batsmen are playing their first Test series in England. Ditto for their two opening bowlers. India went into this Test with three-and-a-half bowlers (given that you’d expect Jadeja to be less of a threat abroad than at home). They were sent in to bat on a green pitch. And they were 145 for 7 on day one.
You get the idea.
Perth 2008 will probably remain India’s finest win abroad in the last 25 years and Headingley ’02, Jo’burg ’06, Adelaide ’03, and Durban ’10 will follow (not necessarily in that order). But Lord’s 2014 won’t be too far behind. Yes, they’re playing against an England team whose players are acting like freshers waiting to be ragged – meek, passive and error-prone, just like their captain – but given 0-8, given the inexperience, given the toss, and given the conditions, this should be up there with the rest.
2 The worst part about watching the 0-8 in 2011 was that you couldn’t even relate to the Indian team on the field. There was a profound listlessness to those defeats. I understand that cricket ultimately boils down to skill (a team with good batsmen and good bowlers will usually win) but even the poor teams sometimes put up enough resistance and keep fans interested.
For large stretches of 0-8, the Indian Test team made me lose interest. It was hard to summon up the energy to wake early and sleep late for that bunch – simply because they themselves appeared to be coasting from one loss to the next. (Now I’m not saying the players didn’t hurt; I’m saying that the on-field performances were so uninspiring, I didn’t really mind missing a day or two of that sorry sameness.)
In the last six months, this team has changed the mood. Sure, they lost series in South Africa and New Zealand but there have been several phases (specifically in Jo’burg and Auckland and Wellington – where they should have won – but also in Durban and Nottingham) that have kept me engrossed. Whether it’s Bhuvi and Shami making fifties or Dhawan kick-starting a tall run-chase or Kohli handling Steyn and Morkel on day one or Jadeja smashing the new ball or Shami and Ishant bowling New Zealand out for 192 – there has always been that whiff of possibility. And that’s a wonderful reason to set an alarm, wake up, and watch.
3 There are several reasons why India have won just one Test at Lord’s before this (and it’s never a good idea to generalise) but I think too many Indian players in the past have had a deep reverence for the ground, which in turn has dictated the way they have played.
There’s this whole aura about Lord’s being the “home” of cricket or the “mecca” of cricket. You have the Long Room and Father Time. Players are constantly asked about their thoughts of playing there. You have the honours board. Etc etc.
I won’t be surprised if many Indian teams in the past were overwhelmed by the setting. The hush before the bowler runs in, the ooohs, the temple-like setting. A few days before the 2007 Test, Dinesh Karthik claimed to have goosebumps just being at the ground. On the first morning, he dropped a dolly of a catch (I would be surprised if the drop was not at least partly brought on by the goosebumps). In 1990, Kiran More dropped Gooch on 36 (he went on to make 333). Again, it may well have been such jitters.
I maybe totally wrong but something tells me that one of the reasons why Dravid missed out on a hundred on debut (at Lord’s) was because he thought too much about the significance of getting there. I am sure he had read or heard stories of the Lord’s slope, the honours board, and the egg-and-bacon ties. And, as a young boy, he probably dreamed of raising his bat at the ground. (Of course, Dravid would eventually get that Lord’s hundred and what a fine knock that was.)
The man who began to change this mindset was Ganguly. He recently said he had no idea about the Lord’s slope before batting on it (when he went on to get a hundred on debut in 1996). And he famously went topless on the Lord’s balcony in 2002, screaming obscenities. He made it clear that playing at Lord’s was like playing at any other ground.
MS Dhoni has taken Ganguly’s approach. Back in 2007 (when Karthik was talking of “goosebumps” and Sreesanth was on the verge of tears) Dhoni was asked about playing at Lord’s. Pat came the reply: “I think the food is amazing and the desserts are excellent. I’m enjoying my ice cream. And after this discussion I’m going back for more.”
All this pop psychology may be total humbug but I think the way a team approaches a venue rubs off on their performances. And this Indian team played with enough swagger to show they were more interested in how they were playing rather than where.
4 Ishant Sharma. The name comes with so much baggage. Just tell someone that Ishant Sharma is bowling and their palms may instinctively approach their face. Some days, you just can’t bear to see him bowl. And then, on other days, he does something like this: 7 for 74.
Imagine a cricketing god appears in front of you and says: “You can either have a bowler who is largely disciplined with his line and length and gets you a wicket or two regularly. Or you can have Ishant.” Who will you choose?
Ishant has 25 wickets in four Tests in 2014. He delivered the over that won the Champions Trophy. The problem with Ishant is not his bad days. The problem is, as Jon Hotten recently said, “Ishant is a player with quite a wide gap between his best and his worst.” When he’s good, he’s awesome; when he’s bad, he’s pathetic.
The strange part about Ishant is you can’t really tell his mood from his run-up. With some bowlers, you could spot the rhythm – Ambrose at his peak had a crazy intimidating run and even an in-form Zaheer, in the 2009-2011 phase, was pretty easy to identify. When Zaheer started his spell at Lord’s in 2011, it was pretty obvious that something was wrong. And sure enough, he was soon out of the series.
With Ishant, you need to wait until he finishes his delivery stride. And there is no real trend with his bowling – just random data points with no correlation. Sample this: The first over of his mad spell on the final day at Lord’s contained two full balls and one that was short and wide (aka rubbish). All three were struck for four. Here was someone playing his 57th Test. Wasn’t it high time he led the attack and ran through batting line-ups? I mean, how long could we watch him regularly beat the bat – only to be called “unlucky” – without actually delivering wins? How long could he get away with bowling as if he were a newbie?
Then, at the start of the next over – the one before lunch – Dhoni dispensed with the slips and placed a short leg and a leg gully. The plan was clear – Ishant had ben told to bang it in short. Everyone could see the bouncers coming. Root played out three short ones and Moeen Ali saw out two more (both slightly down the leg side). Then he took strike for the final ball before lunch. Of course, it was going to be another bouncer. Moeen obviously expected one too… yet he ducked awkwardly and popped a catch.
So here was Ishant, surprising a batsman with pace and bounce despite everyone knowing the nature of the plan. Now that’s a sign of a very good bowler – and also a sign that Ishant can go from ridiculous to terrific in about three minutes.
5 Gradually, layer by layer, the Indian batting is revealing itself. Pujara and Kohli were expected to carry the line-up (and they may well do in the next three Tests) but there’s something calming about a batsman like Vijay at the top. He blunts the new ball and shows discipline outside off. And like some adhesive batsmen, he doesn’t give it away after making 30 or 40. Vijay and Dhoni added 79 in the second innings – taking them from 123 for 4 to 202 for 5. Dhoni made 19. I’m sure you won’t forget Jadeja’s awshucks 68 that came after but don’t forget Vijay’s 95 that set it up.
The reason why you may forget it is because of how our memories of cricket are so dependent on images. A highlights package from this Test would probably have one or two shots of Vijay. A photo gallery would probably have one – just because you’ll feel a bit odd to leave out a batsman who made 95. Contrast that with Jadeja’s innings – an aggressive knock with charges down the ground, uppercuts and pulls. And when he reached his fifty, he brandished his bat like he was playing Fruit Ninja at the ground. That will surely be one of the defining images of this Test.
Television is obsessed with action. A batsman lofting a fast bowler above his head will get way more airtime than a dab to cover for two. And the more we watch these images and videos – the more we will be convinced (subconsciously, at least) that Jadeja played the more important hand.
What the images won’t tell you is that Jadeja might have had to walk in much earlier – way before the new ball was taken – if Vijay had been out for much lesser. Which is one of the reasons to value batsmen like Vijay. He slows down the game’s tempo and locks up an end – which allows strokemakers around him to take extra risks. Without his steeliness, you might not have had Jadeja’s swordplay.
6 MS Dhoni has probably had enough flak for a lifetime. But it’s hard to ignore his captaincy in this Test. A few of his bowling changes worked – he brought on Jadeja in the seventh over of England’s second innings, Jadeja struck off his first ball; he brought on Shami for a new spell when Cook and Ballance were settling down, and Shami struck off his first ball.
Dhoni has often said that he first gives his bowlers a free reign. Only when things don’t work does he step in. One over before the lunch break, he stepped in and gave Ishant a field to bowl at. He told him he had to use his height and bang it in short. Ishant struck at the stroke of lunch.
He stood back to Jadeja – which he later explained was to save runs. And he stood up to Bhuvi – in a bid to keep Moeen and Joe Root in their crease, thereby not allowing them to negate the swing.
The one reason for criticism is his team selection. I don’t really see the logic of picking Stuart Binny purely as a medium-pace bowler (Pankaj Singh and Varun Aaron are better options). And I also don’t see a point of picking Binny as a batsman who can bowl (if you need eight batsman in a Test, you’re really not trusting the top five.)
7 I have no idea how England became such a bad side so quickly. That second-innings collapse was straight out of India’s batting manual in the 1990s. And most of the batsmen seem unwilling to smash the ball, they’re all content to simply nudge and poke. Shane Warne spoke about how Cook’s passive approach seems to have rubbed off on the rest of the team. I wish they take a punt on a mad max who may give them a quick fifty early in the third Test. Maybe it’s time for Jos Buttler to be handed his debut. (Thinking about it, if not for KP’s masterpiece in Mumbai in 2012 – that series may have turned out slightly differently.)
8 I don’t believe nobody knows what exactly happened between Anderson and Jadeja. In this day and age, surely some unnamed source should have said something? My biggest question is – did Anderson cross the Kohli line? ie – did he say something that even Virat Kohli wouldn’t have said? If so, he’s surely in deep trouble. Or as an unnamed Indian cricketer said: “Anderson toh ghus gaya”.
9 I wish Jadeja had finished the match by getting Anderson lbw, or bowled, or – best of all – caught and bowled. A direct-hit run-out was not really the best way to end. Jadeja was desperate for that wicket – his appeal for lbw showed as much – and it would be been revealing to see how he would have reacted after the dismissal.
Pre and post-match, we hardly hear much from the cricketers apart from clichéd truisms. “Bowl in the right areas”, “totally focused”, “back to the drawing board”, “get our acts together” blah blah. So it makes me wish for more moments on the field when we get to see hitherto unknown aspects of cricketers’ personalities. I remember Tendulkar sending off Saqlain Mushtaq in a one-dayer in Sharjah (probably the first time I saw him use the f-word). And Steve Waugh bowling the best ball of the 1996 World Cup (to nail Brian Lara in a crucial stage in the semi-final) and simply raising one arm and letting out a faint smile. And of course, thank god it was Venkatesh Prasad who got Aamer Sohail in the 1996 quarter-final in Bangalore. Imagine what we would have missed if Sohail was run-out.
10 The most heartening aspects of the victory:
– Bhuvi’s bowling. His batting is a bonus, of course, but Bhuvi the bowler is the anti-Ishant. He isn’t as tall, doesn’t have as much pace, and will never extract as much bounce but how beautifully he pegged away. Found a length (both at Trent Bridge and Lord’s) and kept hitting it. Over after over.
I just hope people let him be. He needn’t be the next anyone. There is no need for him to turn into a bowling allrounder and no need to demand any extra pace. He is the kind of bowler that can turn in consistent spells in all conditions. And he swings it. That works just fine.
– The biggest question mark post Draxmandulkar was not so much the No. 3 or No. 4 slots (which Pujara and Kohli had grown into) but No. 5, which was Laxman’s spot. Though he preferred to bat at No. 3 (and played some of his most fabulous innings from there) Laxman mastered the art of batting with the tail (and facing the second new ball) in the second half of his career. As long as Laxman was there, India were still in the game.
Which is why Rahane’s rise (in New Zealand and here) is the best news of the last few months. A traditional opener, he has shown he can adapt his game to the middle order. He lifted India from a precarious 145 for 7 to 275 (which eventually turned into 295). And he did so with a wonderful combination of defense and attack. When on 90, he faced two short balls from Anderson – both of which rocketed to the boundary off fierce pull shots. The century came with another four, this time through the covers. He didn’t win the Man-of-the-Match award but he kept India in the game with a special innings. Some might even say very, very special.