11.5 overs. 71 deliveries. That’s all the cricket we saw at the Eden Gardens on day one of the first Test between India and Sri Lanka. And it might not be an exaggeration to say that those brief minutes under the overcast sky in Kolkata on Thursday produced more exciting cricket than the three Test matches during India’s tour of Sri Lanka earlier this year.
Of course, the conditions played a massive role in that. Sunil Gavaskar joked during the pitch report that it was difficult to tell the difference between the pitch and the outfield. The weather was also perfectly suited for swing bowling. It was almost as if Kolkata was transformed into Durban to help India begin their preparations early for the tour in January.
And when the stumps were drawn at the end of the day with what felt like the hundredth break of play, Suranga Lakmal had provided India with a shock to the system. If you had woken him up in the middle of the night before the match and asked him what his dream figures would be at the close of play on day one if he could bowl only six overs, he wouldn’t have predicted 6-6-0-3.
It was one of those days.
Why was Vijay dropped?
With the rub of the green, pun intended, going Dinesh Chandimal’s way at the toss, there was no surprise to see Sri Lanka run out with a spring in their step. What was surprising, however, was to see Shikhar Dhawan walk out with KL Rahul instead of M Vijay.
Keeping aside the fact that Vijay has been India’s best opener in recent times in conditions where the ball swings and seams, Dhawan’s selection went against the thumb-rule of India’s team selection policy under Virat Kohli.
The captain has repeatedly maintained that if a player misses his place in the XI due to an injury, he will walk back into the side irrespective of the form of the player who replaced him. By that logic alone, most expected Vijay and Rahul to face the new ball and one would have thought the sight of the green pitch would have only reiterated that belief.
As it turned out, both the openers were back in the pavilion after collectively facing 12 balls.
Rahul just accounted for just one of those 12. After seven consecutive 50-plus scores in Tests, he was out for a golden duck with a ball that was unplayable at any given point in a Test series, let alone the very first. Lakmal landed it on a good length, the ball swerved away after pitching and bounced extra for good measure, leaving Rahul very little option but to edge it behind to the ‘keeper.
While Rahul got an unplayable delivery, Dhawan’s dismissal did not come as a surprise. Lahiru Gamage was trying his best from one end to not use the conditions, spraying it wide and banging it short. But bowling from around the wicket, Lakmal kept it full, tempting Dhawan to go for the big drive that would release some pressure. And the left-hander gleefully walked into the trap. The ball seamed back just enough to take the inside edge and clatter the stumps.
Cue: Would Vijay have played that shot under these conditions?
A duck for Kohli
It was then Kohli’s turn to fall for the keep-it-full-let-it-swing ploy of Lakmal as he was caught at the crease, and rapped on the pads. DRS couldn’t save him from getting out for a duck for the second time in Tests in 2017. If not for the ball kissing Cheteshwar Pujara’s off-stump without dislodging it, India would be in deep trouble.
“We are happy to play on wickets like this,” said India’s batting coach Sanjay Bangar after the day’s play. “A team doesn’t really want to play on easy conditions. We challenge ourselves and most players are open to such challenges. We want to continue improving as a team. It was a similar wicket last year, after it was relaid. We played that Test really well and applied ourselves. We are ready for the challenge.”
As things stand, it is still early in the Test match and India have the two batsmen at crease who are best equipped to negotiate these conditions if and when play resumes on Friday. If Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and the much-vaunted lower order embrace the challenge and take India to a fighting total, there’s no reason why the home side cannot wrestle the momentum back in their favour.
With all the talk about preparing for South Africa, the Indian top-order got a timely jolt of the challenges that lie ahead, as it transpired. If Lakmal can do this on a overcast Thursday afternoon in Kolkata, imagine the havoc the South African pacers could wreak in Cape Town, Centurion or Johannesburg.
While there are no reasons for alarm bells yet, this certainly was a wake-up call.
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