At a critical juncture in this series, England got what they wanted dearly – a win of the coin toss. No, one is not talking about Mohali.
After a rejuvenating mini-break in Dubai, winning the toss and batting first in Mumbai would have been top of Alastair Cook’s Christmas list. And when Santa did grant him that wish, the English skipper did not really need to be asked what he wanted to do.
Things then began in the same manner as they have for the entire series so far – some tight bowling from India, a dropped catch, and then England asserting themselves in the first hour of play. It followed a similar script, with Keaton Jennings dropped at gully, albeit a tough chance for Karun Nair.
Kohli’s strange tactics
But, the underlying importance is in how Cook and his sixth opener partner this year, Jennings, tightened up thereafter. They never gave India a sniff for the longest time, and indeed scoring became progressively easy. Credit for this primarily goes to Jennings in part, for a debutant can enjoy the freedom of a maiden innings despite alien conditions.
If his shots flowed easily, Cook was sedate, resolute even, determined not to make the same mistakes from Mohali. And thus, their partnership flowed freely, as the run-rate touched 3.7 per over momentarily. The other bit of credit for this ample run scoring goes to skipper Virat Kohli’s tactics.
In this series, his captaincy has come under severe criticism from different quarters. The argument against is not that the game is drifting away as his predecessor might have allowed. Instead, there is certain caution in Kohli’s thinking, almost too much attention to detail. It is as if he is afraid that the game might slip away too quickly.
Sample this. At one instance, Kohli had a long-off fielder in place for Cook – for a batsman who earns his bread by grinding down bowlers. It is tough to recall when he might have played an aerial stroke down the ground in the first session of a Test. Sure, on this day, Cook and Jennings were chugging along nicely, but they were allowed enough leeway by the Indian skipper who only deployed his off-spinners for a majority of the morning session.
The other grouse about Kohli’s over-thinking as a captain is his tendency to hold back Ravindra Jadeja against left-handers. He did so in Rajkot too, as England found their way to a heady lead in the second innings, and now again in Mumbai.
Yes, this ploy has worked in the shorter formats – particularly Twenty20 cricket – but bowlers are restricted in terms of pitch and thinking then, for the batsmen are just looking to hit out at all costs. In the vast, unimaginable expanse of Test cricket, when the onus is on attacking batsmen and stemming the flow of runs, much like this particular situation, this move defies logic.
It was proven so when Jadeja did get the breakthrough. Cook’s dismissal set the stage for young Jennings to stamp his authority on proceedings. It can be said that his knock was full of perseverance against a classy spin attack in unknown conditions. Plus, it was an innings of some verve coming in his first outing in international cricket. Those are clichéd definitions though.
The true impact of his knock can be determined in two aspects: one, his affinity to play the reverse sweep, and get it right. He did it twice, and the second occasion will be remembered for a long time obviously. Against one of the toughest opponents in their own den, a bowling attack flying high at the moment, Jennings backed himself. It is a serious illustration of the kind of players English cricket embraces (he is of South African origin) and then moulds them into something better.
The second aspect is a derivative of it. Jennings becomes the second debutant opener in this series to make an impression. The first, Haseeb Hameed, was watching from the stands. Already there is talk that these two could go on to form a successful pairing or that one of them could bat at number three when both are available. It puts into focus the future of Cook himself, and even Joe Root’s position in the batting order. It can be classified either as hyperbole, or a serious head-scratching proposition.
Returning to the present scheme of things though, Jennings’ knock already assumes significance in light of how the Wankhede pitch behaved. While it was a beauty in the morning, puffs of dust could be seen repeatedly after lunch, and their regularity only increased after tea. This was a sure-shot sign of ample turn in this pitch, which is already kicking about in terms of bounce.
Ashwin the champion
His hundred allowed England to get ahead, and they could have won the day in a canter, but for one champion bowler. With just an additional iota of turn available in comparison to the morning session, Ashwin wreaked havoc after tea. The crux of his spell is not in the dismissals of Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow or Jennings himself. Rather, it is in the manner he set up Root before tea, or troubled a clueless Ben Stokes afterwards.
The thinking spinner he is, Ashwin teased Root outside off, and finally tempted him to feel one, enough to get a thick edge. With Stokes, it was the opposite as Ashwin drifted the ball in and again teased him on a nagging off-stump line. Just how the batsman survived that post-tea spell is beyond comprehension.
As such, 288/5 was a fair pedestal at stumps. England worked hard to get here, and India struck back well. The match hangs in balance, with prime focus on the first innings’ total herein. The morning session on day two then could be a game-changer.