India vs England: Outplayed in First Test, India Must Regroup Swiftly to Keep Series – And WTC Chances – Alive
The first Test against England turned into a double whammy for India. Not only is the home team one down in the four-Test series but also stumbled three places from No. 1 to No. 4 in the World Test Championship (WTC) table. An entirely unexpected scenario from what was anticipated! I’ll come to the Chepauk defeat and what this series portends from here after addressing the WTC issue which seems to have been obscured by what happened in the first Test. Skipper Virat Kohli downplayed the WTC standings after the match. But there is considerable prestige attached to it, which couldn’t have been lost on the India captain. This is the inaugural World Test Championship. For almost 18 months India occupied the top two positions; in fact they were largely no. 1. Suddenly, reaching the final looks iffy. One can’t be dismissive of this. Failure to make it to Lord’s mid-2021 would be a severe dent in pride (for the players) and the reputation of Indian cricket.
To give a brief recap of how the WTC is unravelling, New Zealand, after massive wins over West Indies and Pakistan at home, are assured of a place in the final; fortuitously so too, given Australia’s tour of South Africa was unfortunately cancelled for Covid-related fears.
India’s defeat at Chepauk last week has given England such a massive surge that they are currently top-placed in the percentage points on the WCT table! If England win 3-1, 3-0 or 4-0, they will join New Zealand in the final.
A quite remarkable feat if it happens, because even a few weeks back, this looked extremely remote.
It’s not just England who have benefited from India’s flop show in the first Test. Australia have got a lifeline too and could squeeze past both England and India depending on the scoreline of this series. A 1-1 or 2-2 draw for instance, or England winning 2-1 would open the door for the Aussies.
The battle for the second WTC finalist is reaching boiling point. The possibility of India reaching the final is linked directly to winning the series, even 2-1. Whatever his compunctions about the WTC, Kohli would obviously dearly want to win the series. That would be good enough to meet the second objective too.
It won’t be easy, though, going by how the first Test transpired.
England’s prospects looked bleak even though they had come to India after a resounding 2-0 win over Sri Lanka. On their previous visit here, they were clobbered 0-4. How much better could the scoreline get? Not much, said the pundits.
The heroics in Australia had given the Indian team a kind of infallibility for fan and expert alike. Moreover, India were also bolstered by the return of Kohli and Ishant Sharma. Not the least, the match was being played at Chennai, usually a happy hunting ground for desi spinners and batsman. India had ticked all the boxes.
Unless one is a bigoted follower of sport and unable to enjoy excellence of players from other teams, there is genuine joy attached to see an underdog turn the tables on a more fancied rival. The element of uncertainty makes sport riveting. It can also humble know-all pundits/experts and cocky players.
This happened in Australia when everybody wrote off India after the debacle at Adelaide. It repeated itself at Chennai in the first Test. Except that this time India finished on the losing side. By such a wide margin, that it raises concerns whether India can fight back from such a setback.
Make no mistake, England cut the ground from under Kohli & Co at Chepauk. This was not just a win, but a walloping as the 227-run margin testifies. In batting, bowling, fielding, tactics, preparation, determination — and not the least ambition — the visiting team showed itself to be way ahead of India.
England took control of the proceedings from the first over and India were left to play catch up on four days, and then try save the match on the fifth. An uphill battle on a wearing pitch and against some top-class pace and spin bowling. There was to be no encore of the fabulous recent Sydney fightback. India plummeted to defeat easily.
Joe Root winning the toss has been touted by some as the principal reason for England’s victory. It had some bearing on the outcome, but not to the extent as some have argued. Just winning the toss does not help win a match. It’s how this advantage is actualized.
This is where England showed resourcefulness, strong preparation, astute tactics and deep ambition. The batting, led by a majestic double century by Root, and superbly supported by Sibley and Stokes in the top order, and Bess and Leach from the tail, stymied everything that the Indian bowlers – fast and spin – hurled at them.
To score 578 against India at Chepauk, irrespective of the toss advantage, takes some doing. England showed how, with style and stamina. I must confess to being bewildered at Root extending his first innings on the third morning too. But the tactic to wear down the Indian players psychologically paid off brilliantly in the end.
The magnificent batting was complemented equally magnificent bowling. There wasn’t a single bowler who didn’t impress. For sheer skill and dramatic impact, Jimmy Anderson’s three wicket spell on the last morning, which snuffed out India’s hopes of a draw, will be long remembered for late swing, control and guile.
Archer’s snorters in his first spell in the first innings which had batsmen ducking and weaving, Bess’s flurry of wickets which restricted India to 337, Leach coming good in the second innings after being hammered in the first, showed how well England had prepared for such pitches.
In contrast India looked undercooked, and after Root took charge in the first innings, nonplussed for the remainder of the match. The bowlers succeeded in fits and starts, though Ravi Ashwin showed his mettle yet again with a nine-wicket haul. But none had the same devastating impact as Anderson. Among batsmen, quite a few settled in, but nobody could come up with a tour de force like Root.
From the selection point of view, picking Nadeem Shahbaz bombed. Drafted in when Axar Patel got injured on the eve of the match, he was as if on tenterhooks and lapsed in control. The question to be asked, is if Kuldeep is not the first choice left-arm spinner (Jadeja is), nor second (Axar) or third (Nadeem), what is he doing in the squad?
What of the next remainder of the series?
It’s not that reversing a 0-1 defeat to win the series is not possible. India did that against Australia in 2016-17. But for that, the team has to regroup swiftly, the right composition has to be found, key players especially Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane have to contribute substantially.
However, of primary importance at this stage is to not be deluded and acknowledge that this England side is no pushover. In fact, they have classy, experienced hands as well as exciting young talent, making for a powerful combination that has set its sight on winning the series and reaching the WTC final.
India have to come up with something special to foil this ambition.