India’s pacers again put on a show, this time in Southampton!
Looking back at India’s cricket history, it is easy to count the number of times they have won a Test series on foreign soil. In fact, ‘alien conditions’ is a better phrase to describe this calculation – foreign soil can also mean Asia and West Indies.
Just to be sure, let us say India’s overseas wins in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England can be easily counted – on one hand, to be precise. They have won only five times in 86 years – 1968 (New Zealand), 1971 (England), 1986 (England), 2007 (England) and 2009 (New Zealand). They did win in West Indies (1971) too, against arguably the greatest team in Test cricket. But to balance that out, they have never ever won in Australia and South Africa.
India’s traditional strength in bowling has always been spin. Their series’ wins in 1968 and 1971 were scripted by the legendary spin quartet. Of course, it was also down to the fact that they didn’t really have a world-class pacer until Kapil Dev came along. Even so, he couldn’t become the over-riding factor in getting overseas wins, and the closest he came was in Australia (1991-92), wherein India lost the five-Test series by a 1-0 margin.
When Dev led India to victory in England in 1986, Chetan Sharma and Roger Binny were the main wicket-takers, sharing 28 between them. Dev did take 10 wickets, but that series laid down a marker for the next three decades. It was the first time Indian pacers took 40-plus wickets in an overseas Test series, almost a blueprint for success in alien conditions.
Since then, this feat has been achieved only on eight more occasions. 57 wickets in 1991-92 in Australia, 41 in 1996-97 in South Africa, 41 in 2002 in West Indies, 41 in England in 2007, 45 in England in 2014, 41 in Australia in 2014-15 and 50 in South Africa in 2018. The latest entry in this rare list was added on Thursday in Southampton when Ishant Sharma trapped Joe Root lbw in the eighth over, as the Indian pacers hit the 40-mark in this on-going series in England.
That Sharma took this 40th wicket was poignant. Since 2014, Indian pacers have taken 40-plus wickets four times, as aforementioned. Four times in four years of overseas travel simply underlines the growth India’s pace attack has made, and Ishant has been a central figure in this graph, playing the leadership role. One by one, the pieces fit together as Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah and even Hardik Pandya have come together.
Their performance was crucial in reducing the 2-0 deficit in Nottingham, and it is equally crucial here in Southampton, and will be so going further ahead if India are to win this series and create history. This newfound prowess in pace is also the reason why shoulders didn’t drop when Virat Kohli lost the toss and had to lead his team out to field on Thursday morning. New ball, fresh pitch, wind and cloud about, English conditions, et al – they were ready and raring to go.
It won’t suffice to say Indian pacers’ first spells were unplayable. For nearly an hour, the English top-order faced a torrid time in the middle, and it was clear that they were more comfortable in the sanctuary of their dressing room. The score read 27-2 at drinks, and then 36-4 soon after. Relentless is the word that comes to mind – from Bumrah, to Ishant, to Pandya and then to Shami, as Kohli went through his pace options one by one, the English batsmen had no respite.
Even after the lunch break, the difficulty didn’t easy up. England were soon reeling at 86-6. How often have the Indian fans seen a pathetic sight of their batsmen struggling to cope in such conditions? Perhaps this morning was a payback for all those times, only made fitting that a colonial power – both in political and cricketing terms – was brought down to its knees.
What followed though was a commentary on how this series has progressed, seesawing from one team to the other, as they both fight for advantage. In English conditions, while the bowlers are almost inevitably on top, the fielding side will always budget for at least one partnership even if the batting side is reeling at 86-6. As such, India wouldn’t have been surprised that Sam Curran and Moeen Ali put on a sedate partnership lower down the order, much like Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler did in Nottingham.
They would have taken it when Ali got out and the score read 167-7. But for Curran to stroke a half-century from thereon, adding more valuable runs with Stuart Broad and push the score past 200, it is a potentially game-changing situation. If India had managed to restrict England to 180-odd, it would have been a mirror image of the Lord’s situation minus the tough grey conditions. Simply put, it would have been a death knell for England’s hopes of sealing the series here.
A first innings’ score of 246 though allows England enough leeway to fight on day two, with the Dukes ball still moving around significantly. It is now down to the Indian batsmen to show better resolve, and back up their bowlers, who once again lit up the stage and turned the series in India’s favour.
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