First match has been thoroughly absorbing and the series holds out promise of an enthralling contest.
Barring a bravado-filled declaration by Alastair Cook and an extraordinary batting collapse by India on the last day, the first Test at Rajkot looks headed for a draw.
Considering the way Tests have gone all over the world in recent months, a draw could be considered an anomaly. Yet this first match has been thoroughly absorbing and the series holds out promise of an enthralling contest.
England, in batting and bowling, have shown the ability and resolve to match the home team. Without doubt, Kohli, Kumble and Co. will have to spend a lot of time on the drawing board thinking up new ruses and tactics to keep the visitors at bay.
Indeed, in taking a first innings lead, England won a moral victory. True, India’s fielding was below par and several chances went abegging, but it still required skill and application for the batsmen to take to score beyond 500.
England arrived here after a rickety performance against Bangladesh but the experience of playing on spinning tracks has helped acclimatise better for this series. The batting was confident enough to even counter-attack India’s spinners, and the bowlers probed relentlessly.
In a high-scoring match, batsmen obviously steal the limelight. From England’s point of view, Joe Root reiterated his growing stature in the game. If he isn’t as good as Kohli, he is certainly not more than a whit behind!
In the context of the match, however, the knocks by Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes were perhaps more crucial. The two all-rounders add so much depth, variety and flexibility to the side in both batting and bowling. Why, England could play three pacers and three spinners without losing any heft in the batting!
For me, however, the most impressive performance came from 19-year-old debutant Haseeb Hameed. Of Indian origin, he was inspired by Sachin Tendulkar whom he saw at net practice at MIG Club in 2004, and hasn’t looked back since.
Hameed is touted in England as the next Boycott because of his orthodox technique and unflappable temperament. But I think he is more out of the `Bombay School’ of batsmanship: resilient, run hungry and unafraid to play strokes.
India were pushed on the back foot on the first four days of course, but not outplayed. If anything, the response to England’s monumental score was forthright and confident, with the class of Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara coming through admirably, and Ashwin yet again showing his prowess with the bat.
With four players vying to be openers (Dhawan and Rahul are injured, but in the squad), Vijay was under pressure to hold his own. Failure here, and if Gambhir had succeeded, his head could have been on the block.
But as he has shown in the past, Vijay has the ability to raise his game when it is most needed. He batted almost an entire day without blemish, broke into big shots whenever needed, but otherwise dropped anchor, sublimating his ego to play a supporting role to Pujara.
The latter was in his element. His century was superbly constructed. Strokes of fine timing and placement, and played on either side of the wicket. Barring the discomfort to a few short-pitched deliveries, it was all class.
It is important to put the knocks of Vijay and Pujara into perspective. Neither is in contention in limited overs cricket, which means they play intermittently. Often their value gets obscured by the instant success of other players in T20 and ODIs.
In recent times, they have also been benched for their strike rate or some such reason. To their credit, Vijay and Pujara haven’t let this affect their game or motivation and not for the first time have reiterated that it takes something special to play so consistently at the Test level.
That is one big lesson for the selectors and the team management to remember. The other — equally important — is that Ashwin will not always run through sides, Kohli will not always play big innings.
Essentially, victory against this England team can’t be taken for granted. It will have to be hard earned.