India vs England: Suddenly, Dravid & Co. face more questions than answers

Double injury blow to Jadeja, K.L. Rahul may force team management to take a few bold calls

Team India in a Hyderabad huddle (photo: @bcci/X)
Team India in a Hyderabad huddle (photo: @bcci/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

If India had prided themselves as tigers at home in Test matches over the past decade, Ben Stokes & Co. dealt a body blow to that reputation by rallying back to win the first Test at Hyderabad on Sunday. From the World Cup final in Ahmedabad a little more than two months ago to the humiliation in the Nizam’s city, Rohit Sharma & Co. seem to be displaying an inability to seize the big moments.

The day after what is now being hailed as a Super Sunday for Test cricket (with the seven-star Samar Joseph handing the West Indies a watershed win against Australia at the Gabba), the question being asked is: can the hosts bounce back from here? The answer is yes, for this is how England started their 2021 series, thanks to a marathon effort from Joe Root, but the difference this time is that the 'Bazball' gang seems to have cracked the code which made India so invincible in home conditions.  

Looking back, it may not be an exaggeration to say that India may have been a trifle overconfident after dismissing the visitors for a modest 246 on day one. If Rahul Dravid rued that they were 70-80 runs short despite his boys amassing a total of 436, he has only his batters to blame — most of them having got starts but only three of them getting to the 80s before falling on the cusp of centuries. A little patience at this stage would have seen India eventually out-bat their opponents, but that was not to be.

The real X-factor, however, came in the shape of Ollie Pope’s masterclass after this. There was clearly a method in the madness in the way the middle-order batter resorted to sweep and reverse sweep to neutralise the Ravi Ashwin-Ravindra Jadeja duo, which has won India countless matches.

When the England camp decided to assemble in Abu Dhabi for a 10-day preparatory camp, away from the prying eyes of Indian media, many questioned the wisdom behind the move, but England must have honed their skills on this mode of counterattack.

This is what player of the match Pope had to say later: ‘’If we can play reverse sweeps to their best balls, that will lead to more short balls and half-volleys to score off.’’ Certainly a point to ponder, but what also helped England was the lack of a wrist spinner in the Indian playing XI, despite in-form Chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav, who is capable of turning the ball both ways. However, India will now have to rejig their strategy with a double injury blow as Jadeja and senior pro K.L. Rahul have both been ruled out of the second Test with niggles.

While Jadeja sustained a hamstring injury, Rahul complained of pain in the right quadriceps, so the selectors have added Sarfaraz Khan, a prolific scorer on the domestic scene for the past few seasons, left-arm spinner Sourabh Kumar, and Washington Sundar.  

At the end of the day, a total of 231 was gettable on a wicket which offered slow turn, but the Indian batters seemed loath to take risks as they kept presenting a defensive bat and losing wickets to newcomer Tom Hartley. Once Virat Kohli decided to miss the first two Tests for personal reasons, the general vibe was that he would not be missed in home conditions, while the selectors certainly missed a trick by not sending an SoS to the in-form Cheteshwar Pujara or Ajinkya Rahane.

It was tokenism of sorts to draft in Rajat Patidar as a reward for his current good form, knowing fully well that he would not get a look-in. There are now also serious question marks about whether Shubman Gill is the right no. 3 on current form, while Shreyas Iyer has failed to inspire enough confidence.

Suddenly, the Indian camp seems to be confronted with more questions than answers ahead of the second Test at Visakhapatnam from 2 February, and may have to take few bold calls.

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