Karun Nair had been special. He had played every shot a batsman could. He had stunned England. He had pleasantly surprised the Indians. To convert a maiden century into a double century was no stroll at Chepauk in Chennai.
Nothing seemed to perturb him – not the nature, not the emotions, not the opposition. He was in cruise control, and had booked himself for a long stay in Chennai. But he had one enemy – time.
It was after tea on Day 4 when he rubbished Keaton Jennings past cover for four to get to his double. England were in pursuit of a less embarrassing 0-3 series loss, India pushed for a 4-0 annihilation. But it was just India’s first innings yet, while England too had completed only one innings. Nair could have transformed his awe into more magic but he needed time. And, that is what he was up against. His desire to achieve it could have come at the cost of another Indian Test victory – and yes, they are not the easiest to come by, despite what this year’s record might make you believe.
How Kohli’s backing played a part in Nair’s triumph
But Virat Kohli believed. The Indian captain believed that Nair should be given a chance to convert his maiden ton into a triple century. He was sure that whatever time would then be left would be enough for his bowlers to bowl his team to another victory. It was Kohli’s way of welcoming Nair into the national set up.
Till a couple of Tests ago, Nair had played only two low-key One-Day Internationals in the Indian blues away to Zimbabwe and survived a boat capsize soon after. When Shikhar Dhawan was ruled out of the final Test against New Zealand, Nair was recalled to the Indian set up. But he had to wait for his Test debut.
Nair was retained in the squad for the England series, but the wait continued. Ajinkya Rahane had established himself as one of India’s most prolific Test match batsmen, while Kohli’s choice for an additional bowling all-rounder in the lower-order meant Nair still could not breakthrough.
But when KL Rahul missed the third Test through injury, Nair’s wait ended. But even then he was still a reserve filling in for an injured player. He was run out cheaply in his first innings, and was set to return to the bench at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai when Rahane picked up an injury.
At the Wankhede, Nair was nervous. He dropped a difficult chance on the first morning, and flopped again in his only outing with the bat. He was still an outsider.
With Manish Pandey called in as an additional backup, the pressure on Nair had gone beyond the butterflies-in-the-stomach stage. Rahane was still out injured, but Nair did not have the runs to back his claim for another shot at Test cricket. But Kohli backed him for the Chennai Test.
With Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan – three frontline batsmen out injured – Nair was aware he would not get too many chances. And in the final Test, he ensured that he will not need too many chances.
In the one session that Kohli had afforded him post tea on Day 4, Nair switched gears to transform a special day into a very special day. He amassed his next 100 off just 75 deliveries. When he cut Adil Rashid through point for a boundary to become only the second Indian triple centurion, there was a satisfactory smile on captain Kohli’s face, as he led the applause from the balcony.
Kohli knew he had backed another reserve, who had responded in a fashion maybe even his first-choice players could not have.
While Nair sparkled the most as the standby who stepped in with élan, there had been others too. In fact, as important as this series triumph was in terms of result, it will be equally remembered for gifting India an enviable bench strength.
Jayant Yadav fills the third spinner’s role
When Kohli felt that he needed more substance with the bat down the order post the first Test, he handed Jayant Yadav his first Test cap. The man from Haryana was more accomplished a batsman than his state-mate Amit Mishra. But the off-spinner showed he could be effective with the ball too – packing off eight English batsmen across four innings.
In Mumbai came Yadav’s picture-perfect moment. He joined Kohli with India still a bit behind England’s first innings total, but left only after the hosts were over 200 ahead. He had scored a century at number nine, and ticked off another wish from Kohli’s bucket list – lower-order power.
Rahul, too, had shown promise of the highest order since his debut Down Under two years ago. But Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan had always been India’s preferred openers. This series, and the Chennai Test in particular, could change that though.
Dhawan’s time out with injury allowed Rahul multiple shots at cementing his place, and delivered the knockout punch in the first innings of the final Test with a glorious 199.
Dhawan’s last century came in August 2015. His attempted return with Ranji Trophy cricket this season too fetched him little runs. In the meanwhile, Rahul showcased what he can bring to the table. And if nothing, it will make Dhawan’s return to the national fold laborious.
Parthiv’s eight-year-old itch
While one seasoned player’s comeback to the Indian team is up for discussion, another one stunned the world with his surprise return after an eight-year hiatus. Nair’s debut Test was also Parthiv Patel’s re-entry to India’s Test fold after Wriddhiman Saha was another Indian player to fall victim to injury.
Parthiv’s wicket-keeping was not breathtaking, but it cannot be easy standing up to Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on rank turners, especially without much practice. But he wasted little time with the bat.
Parthiv reminded all and sundry why he was handed a debut 14 years ago in England at the naïve age of 17. He was thrown in to open against James Anderson & Co, with Rahul injured. A 42 in his comeback knock followed by an unbeaten 54-ball 67 to help India dominate the chase ascertained that he was cut out for international cricket, even now. His 71 in the first innings at Chepauk even banished a longstanding fear – the lack of wicket-keepers during and post the MS Dhoni era.
The rise of the reserves can be attributed to Kohli’s unshakeable support, much like the kind Sourav Ganguly provided to the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh.
We can’t forget Rahul Dravid
Just that, the scenario could shine even brighter now for India. For, the system now involves Rahul Dravid who is the coach of the Under-19 and the A sides.
Nair and Yadav have both been part of the A teams that Dravid has coached over the last year. Even Hardik Pandya, who was a part of the squad for the England Tests before injury hit him too, owed his elevation to the Test squad because of how the former India captain had helped India enhance his game.
Manish Pandey, who has had an impressive start to his ODI career and was in the Test squad for the last two games against England, too idolises Dravid and has played under him in the Indian Premier League and in India A matches.
Dravid is a vital cog in the Indian cricket system even today. The biggest gain has been the bench that can step in whenever required. Dravid had always emphasised on how the “A” and U-19 games are not about the results, but about carving out sturdy bench strength. About a year and a half into the job, Dravid appears to be delivering results as promised, much like the way he batted.
In fact, Dravid’s influence has been felt even in the limited-over formats. The likes of Kedar Jadhav and Mandeep Singh have come through after consistent performances under the former skipper’s watchful eyes.
The combine of Kohli’s belief and Dravid’s vision has handed India the luxury of a pool of players to choose from. The team is spoilt for choice for every spot. It is not about the playing eleven anymore. It is about the pool. It is not a team anymore. It is a family, as the captain called it after demolishing England 4-0.
It was the entire Indian cricket family – all the players who had played some role in this ruthless wrecking of England – that was present at the Chepauk on Tuesday to celebrate the triumph. It was Kohli’s philosophy that rejoiced after the conquest, and looked forward to a future that promised more such glory.