“The catching was c**p, but it was a great Test match,” boomed the unmistakable voice of Michael Holding. He was talking to one of the security personnel. It’s the kind of thing you get a lot of in England. David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd conversing with a fan through the earpiece. Graeme Swann standing outside the ground waiting patiently for his car. Harbhajan Singh on the sidewalk shooting a video. Phil Tufnell by the smoking zone. Nasser Hussain at the same table during lunch. Michael Atherton listening in during a press conference.
And on the ground, a battle for the ages.
Virat Kohli is India’s foreman. He usually steps out as its painter, painting the most beautiful hues. But in this Test, he knows his canvas has been replaced by sand and bricks. He plans carefully, builds meticulously, and almost does it all by himself. He hopes somebody stands with him until he has completed his building.
England are out with a destruction notice. James Anderson finds the one weak spot and hits it. Ben Stokes comes with a battering ram. Stuart Broad is the dynamite while Sam Curran needs just one burst to wipe out the foundation.
That was the spectacle of the Test. The Kohli-bowlers battle. But the game itself wouldn’t have turned out to be the memorable one it was if it wasn’t for two flawed sides going head to head.
Thirteen times England’s batsmen got into double figures during the match, but only three went past fifty. India, too, had 13, with only Kohli making 50+ both times. The pitch wasn’t an easy one to bat on by any means, but it wasn’t unplayable either. It was made to look far worse thanks to the batsmen’s inability to counter the moving/turning ball.
England fell into the trap of being too aggressive – a trait that has perhaps seeped in from their ODI success. Root took a double when there was no need to test Kohli’s fielding skills, and failed. Jonny Bairstow has always had a good leg side game, but when his guard shifted from middle to leg, as it has in the ODIs so that he can power more shots through the off side, the flicks virtually disappeared. Instead, there are now hard hands that poke at deliveries on off stump. He was out trying to cut a delivery that was too close to the off stump; in the second, he poked at one on off, and edged to slip. Buttler fell to Ashwin trying to nurdle him around the corner without first getting a hang of the offspinner. Dawid Malan just didn’t seem in the game at all.
For India, the struggle against the moving ball was as clear as crystal. Shikhar Dhawan was all at sea as soon as the ball began moving. He walked into drives in both the innings without accounting for away swing, and got the edge both times. Murali Vijay, expected to be India’s panacea against the moving ball, fell to in-cutters both times. KL Rahul was like that bait in a shark pool, constantly tempting the edge and in constant fear, while Ajikya Rahane’s assuredness appeared and disappeared as if it were those between-over advertisements.
Then there’s the bowling. According to CricViz, this is the most the ball has swung in England since Trent Bridge 2015, when Stuart Broad went on a rampage against Australia with 8 for 15. Here in Edgbaston, barring Anderson and Sam Curran, none of the other six had an outstanding game.
Broad went missing in the first innings, and only hit top form with the new ball in the second. Stokes went for plenty towards the end, succumbing to hitting the deck hard when swing was on offer. Ishant was average but for a 17-ball stint in which he was nigh unplayable. Shami was mostly just about average, while Umesh Yadav made up for a horror first innings by getting some good pace and movement at the end of the England second innings.
The less said about the catching the better. Holding had it all summed up, as it is.
But despite all the negatives, a great match unfolded. Momentum shifted like a pendulum on drugs, and it gave many players their moment in the sun. Virat Kohli got his first hundred in England. Ishant his second fifer. Root his 12th straight fifty. Ashwin two ripping Alastair Cook wickets. Sam Curran a first man of the match award. Adil Rashid a Test return. And Hardik Pandya a chance to write himself into history. It gave the crowd a gripping, nerve-wracking Test. And it gave Test cricket itself a big shot in the arm – as Root said, something that it can play on loop multiple times over.
And it gave us the contest that only promises to get better with the series.
Amidst the ruins stands Virat Kohli, leaving, blocking, driving, flicking and then leaving some more. On the other side, James Anderson. Outswing, outswing, outswing, inswing, outswing, outswing – all as if he has the ball on a string and dictating exactly what he wants it to do.
For two teams that are mired in mediocrity, one of the two will make the difference. Until then, there is always the less special to fall back on to give us another game for the ages.
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