“We are playing this sport not just to participate but to win as well,” said Murali Vijay in the press conference after day one of the first Test against New Zealand had ended with India struggling at 291/9.
The question was about a particular moment – Rohit Sharma getting out to another inexplicable shot – and yet the answer encapsulated the occasion that was Indian cricket’s 500th Test in an 84-year-long history. The celebrations here have featured a BCCI-hosted dinner for former captains as well as felicitations before play began. Among them, one name was missing: Late Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi.
Tiger, as any ardent Indian cricket fan would have known him, was perhaps the first Indian captain to echo the thoughts that Vijay expressed. In the ‘60s, when he became the youngest Test captain, he brought about a change in mindset that freed Indian cricketers from their belief that they were inferior to the likes of Australia, England and West Indies. He backed the team to play on its strength – spin. Thus began an era where Indian cricket not only started believing in itself, but winning both home and away as well.
And we have seen this intent bear handsome fruit over the past decades, with some epoch-making victories all over the world. It is only justifiable that today’s team, that carries forward a rich legacy as it embarks on a 13-Test long home season, mirrors this intent. One of playing to win, and not just making the numbers!
Trial by spin
It was in 1967-‘68 when, under Tiger Pataudi, India won their first overseas Test series. Coincidentally, it came in New Zealand, riding on the back of spin – Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bapu Nadkarni weaving magic.
Watching day one’s proceedings in Kanpur from the heavens though, Tiger would have been confused, twice over. First, on the sight of Indian batsmen unable to comprehend spin on their own turf, as three Kiwi spinners tied them in knots.
There has been significant doubt over India’s spin-playing abilities for some time now, vouched by Moeen Ali, Nathan Lyon and Rangana Herath on different occasions. When part-timer off-spinner Roston Chase took five wickets in Jamaica, batting coach Sanjay Bangar denied that there was a specific problem. Even Vijay was defensive of this situation.
“It is not a difficult pitch to bat on, just it was difficult to score. We should have been more patient,” he said. While they ignore this spin problem, Vijay and his teammates know the virtue of patience in Test cricket, and yet it was a keen aspect missing from their play on day one. For, they were up against a calculative side that would not give up at the mere sight of a dusty track, like South Africa last season.
Kane Williamson delivers the goods
New Zealand promised a lot in the build-up to this Test series and duly delivered. They picked three spinners, and backed them to the hilt. Mitchell Santner bowled first in the ninth over of the day. Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig bowled lengthy spells. In between they were hit for runs, mostly when Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara scored fifties.
“When I spoke with Daniel Vettori before this tour, he told me to be patient when there isn’t much turn from the pitch. And when it turns, he told me to let the wicket do its work. Today, we concentrated on bowling the right lines and putting pressure, and 291/9 isn’t too bad,” said the left-arm spinner, after taking 3-77 on his first day of Test cricket on Indian soil.
His spell mirrored clearly what the bowling plan was. The Kiwis meant business with every ball bowled. Not once did they let shoulders drop. Kane Williamson put on a master-class in field placements, never chasing the ball. He changed his bowlers around quickly, allowing them enough breathing space to put pressure on the batsmen. It was clear that the visitors had read the pitch clearly – not too bad, not too good either. And they made India work hard for every run scored. In return, they were gifted wickets.
If you play the highlight reel of Indian dismissals, only Pujara (return catch) and Ajinkya Rahane (bat-pad) were soft ones. Meanwhile, Vijay and KL Rahul, who had sped off quickly to 32, were worked out with a patient approach from the bowlers. Virat Kohli played a bad shot, and later the lower order was blown away by Trent Boult’s genius with the new ball.
The Rohit Sharma malaise
It brings us to the second point of disappointment for late Tiger Pataudi, when Sharma once again used “intent” as an excuse. With India collapsing from 154/1 to 209/5, he did well enough to add 52 runs with Ravichandran Ashwin. Rohit Sharma hit a six in between, and it was a moment of brilliance, reflective of the time on hand to get his shot selection right.
That is a rarity in Test cricket though. On the other end of the spectrum, a common sight now, is the nonchalance in throwing away his wicket. With just seven overs remaining in the day, there was no need to attack Santner and go for an aerial shot. He only ended up lobbing a simple catch to mid-on.
“That’s his area I guess. When it comes out it always looks good and when it doesn’t it obviously follows on the wrong side. We have to back our instincts and play. So whatever you have got you have to back it,” Vijay said of Sharma’s dismissal, talking about intent.
The underlying point here is not about playing or not playing big shots. It is about temperament, and whether 261/5 with half an hour until stumps is the opportune moment to play such shots. The question here is if the Indian team really needs someone at No. 6 who bats only with instinct, and ignores the situation at hand?
The answer, however, is not forthcoming, as both the team management and selectors are busy doling out opportunities to Sharma, almost like a billionaire sitting at a blackjack table not caring about what or how much he is losing.