The transition from the old guard to the new guard carries risk. The gamble is part of the fun. There’s no telling how a new, exciting talent will fit in with a team in a position previously occupied by players who have etched their names in the annals of the sport through the sheer weight of their performances. India’s 1-0 Test series win against the West Indies is symptomatic of this change.
Rain denied play on day five of the second Test at Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain and robbed the visiting team of full World Test Championship (WTC) points (win-loss percentage has dropped from 100 to 66.67). India’s next Test series will be in South Africa in December later this year, and while head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma have to contend with a squad in flux, they get the chance to mould a core group of young players.
Only a few certainties remain. Ravichandran Ashwin is going nowhere, and neither is Mohammed Siraj. Virat Kohli remains untouchable at No. 4, as does Mohammed Shami, so long as he remains fit. As for the incomings, there is palpable excitement over left-handed opener Yashasvi Jaiswal, who made his Test debut with a fluent and mature 171; there is hope Shubman Gill will provide strong cover for Cheteshwar Pujara, who was India’s No. 3 for a better part of the last decade, in a young and energetic top-order, although Gill could eke out only 45 runs in three innings.
First things first, though, the Indian Test team needs time to rebuild. The last WTC final defeat to Australia was chaotic, and the team’s talent pool and approach are once again in the spotlight. The long-term injuries of Shreyas Iyer and Jasprit Bumrah have, no doubt, compounded its woes, but given its second consecutive global-event slipup, highlighted by a meek surrender at The Oval, questions have been raised over the batting, and rightly so.
Make no mistake, India has been phenomenal in Test cricket in the last five years, as highlighted by the consecutive Test series wins in Australia and a drawn one in England. It had also made both WTC finals. But while it may be tempting to get swayed by its rather one-sided dominance, for the most part, in the Caribbean and entertain thoughts of a secure future, it is prudent to remind oneself that the win, commendable as it was, came against the No. 8-ranked Test side and some players, who are perhaps still reeling from their failure to qualify for the ODI World Cup for the first time. Nevertheless, Alick Athanaze’s 47 in the first innings in Dominica and captain Kraigg Brathwaite’s 76 in Port of Spain brought smiles to the faces of West Indies fans. But they were aberrations and not a norm.
Meanwhile, Jaiswal’s 266 runs in three innings, with a hundred and a fifty, contributed to India’s cautious optimism. The manner in which he took the attack to the West Indies bowlers was both authoritative and largely risk-free, as he unfurled a wide range of shots. His innings of 171, lasting 501 minutes and 387 balls, was the longest by an India Test debutant and reaffirmed the promise he has shown as an all-format player. “He’s (Jaiswal) shown us in the past couple of years that he’s ready for this big stage. He came and batted sensibly, showed a lot of patience, and the temperament was tested as well; at no stage [did it look] like he was panicking or going away from his plans, which was good to see,” captain Rohit said, lauding the youngster after his maiden Test hundred.
Virat Kohli made his first away Test century in almost five years with a 121 in Port of Spain — his 500th international match. But it was his innings in the first Test in Dominica, where he took 81 balls to hit his first boundary, that underlined the most significant aspect of Kohli, the Test batter: even as the game around him has changed rapidly, he has refrained from changing his style or adding new shots to his game. There were reprieves in Dominica along the way — two dropped catches on 40 and 72 and a missed run-out chance on 45 — but Kohli was in it for the long haul, biding time to churn out his 76 runs instead of trying to be unnecessarily aggressive. With the ODI World Cup in India just months away, Kohli’s form, irrespective of the format, augurs well for the team.
On the bowling front, Ashwin and Jadeja shone, as expected, in Dominica on a pitch with a slow, but sharp turn. The two shared 17 of the 20 wickets India took, with Ashwin registering match figures of 12 for 131, his best in overseas Tests. Paras Mhambrey, India’s bowling coach, called Ashwin “one of the greatest match-winners” the country has produced. On a side note, why India then decided to leave out Ashwin, its most successful bowler in the last two-year WTC cycle, from the final against Australia remains a mystery.
It is also worth noting that Mukesh Kumar, who made his debut in Trinidad, did a fine job. The Bengal pacer snapped up his first wicket when Kirk McKenzie nicked one to Ishan Kishan. He scalped two wickets in the first innings. Siraj stood out for the way he spearheaded a relatively inexperienced red-ball attack in the absence of Shami, who was rested for the West Indies tour. Siraj’s five-for (career-best figures of 5 for 60) on a flat wicket in Port of Spain has raised his stakes multifold.
Looking ahead, India needs leadership and clarity of thought to move forward in Test cricket. But at least there is a sense that the brains trust is building something.
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