At one stage on Friday, there was a sense of disappointment around Edgbaston. England were struggling at 86-6 at lunch. A Test that had oscillated brilliantly from one team to another was about to finish two days ahead of schedule – India needed only 100 runs to win at that stage.
Sam Curran then smacked a maiden Test half-century that, on hindsight, knocked off the wind from India’s sails. For an hour after the lunch break, he defied the Indian bowling and changed the course of this game. Until then, led by Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin, this attack – unsurprisingly – had out-bowled England.
That word ‘unsurprisingly’ is of grave consequence here. In South Africa, this bowling attack took all 60 wickets on offer. It is what number one-ranked Test sides do, yet this was overplayed to the point of exhaustion. Simply because, it has taken a step-by-step process – in terms of experience and exposure – for this pack of bowlers to reach this stage.
For the likes of Ashwin and Umesh Yadav, it has been a matter of a couple of visits. The latter had a poor overseas experience in 2013-14, but only in terms of travel. In experience, he gained richly and showed us the first glimpses of his growth in South Africa. Here in England, the Dukes ball grips more and his true class came forth, a replication of Ashwin’s learning from his time at Worcester.
For Yadav, it is a tad slower. The team management’s chop and change policy is to blame here. He is, without doubt, India’s most improved pacer in the last season or so, yet his playing opportunities have been restricted – that he was third choice in the bowling pecking order during England’s second innings showed as much.
Then, there is Mohammed Shami who has resurrected his bowling rhythm and form. He is easily India’s best Test bowler – only he went missing in South Africa, especially during the first innings. Here, he looked a different bowler, and perhaps his off-field exertions in the last five months have again lit that fire of inspiration within him.
Perhaps, the biggest noticeable change is in Ishant Sharma. He has been labelled India’s senior-most bowler for some time now. It is tough to recall when that tag came over him, but it was sometime during 2012-13 when Zaheer Khan played his last. Even so, Sharma hasn’t bowled all these last five years as India’s attack leader.
This evolution is more recent, and it has to do with the simultaneous growth of others around him. Earlier, he was the lead bowler only on account of the high number of matches he has played.
Seniority cannot be gifted in that manner – it has to be earned. In that light, missing the IPL two seasons running has come as a boon for Sharma. Earlier this summer he was able to come over and work on his bowling with Dukes ball. The way he hit his lengths instantaneously was an obvious extension of his county spell, not to mention that is something expected of a senior bowler with 83 Tests under his belt.
And yet, despite the exertions of their bowlers who again etched out 20 wickets on foreign soil, this first at Birmingham Test was another opportunity lost in terms of registering a famous overseas win. Painfully, it is an addition to a growing list.
Bangalore, 1987 – It began way back, when Sunil Gavaskar played his last. Against Pakistan, on a rank turner, his masterful 96 runs nearly chased down a 221-run target. India fell short by an agonizing 16 runs, enhanced by the fact that it was Pakistan’s first-ever Test series’ win on their bitter rivals’ home soil.
Chennai, 1999 – Almost a decade later, Indian cricket had found a new hero in Sachin Tendulkar but even he couldn’t defeat Pakistan’s mighty bowling attack all alone. Saqlain Mushtaq showcased his genius, while Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis didn’t let the Indian batting breathe. When Tendulkar fell, writhing with back pain and hoping to quickly end things, victory was still 17 runs away. India well 13 short.
Barbados, 1997 – If Chennai was heart breaking for Tendulkar the batsman, this was painful for Tendulkar the captain. Winning overseas was a mirage in those times, for India nowhere had a side worthy of such feats. Yet they thrust forward buoyed by Tendulkar’s genius, and his Mumbai mate Abey Kuruvilla’s 5-68 left India with a 120-run target and a golden opportunity to right the severe historical wrong. It wasn’t to be – Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop and Franklyn Rose tore through the Indian batting line-up and fans back home, who had gone to sleep dreaming of easy victory, woke up to see a despairing 38-run loss instead.
Adelaide, 2014: This was Virat Kohli’s first charge as captain. It was also his first taste of defeat when raising the bar for his side as its star batsman who scored back-to-back hundreds in two innings at the oval. In a way, the defeat at Birmingham was a mirror image of this one four years ago. The only difference being that the ball spun in Adelaide, whereas it seamed more at Edgbaston. Just like here, so back then, Kohli’s first innings’ hundred brought India to parity.
And then he went a step further, scoring a second hundred, only for the others to fail again as India fell short by 48 runs. Kohli was down on his hunches (video at 37.04 minutes) by the end of it all, and not for the first time.
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