India seems to have cracked the code

Team management must now focus on stability, avoiding too much tinkering.

Shikhar Dhawan deserves credit for turning things around, and tailoring his game to suit prevailing conditions.   -  AP

When Shikhar Dhawan slashed a Chris Woakes delivery to the point boundary on Sunday, to take the team’s total to 50 without loss, it marked the first time since 1986 that India had strung together two fifty partnerships in the same Test in England.

Such a scenario seemed unthinkable after Lord’s Test where India lost its first wicket — that of M. Vijay — for no score in both innings. Dhawan had been dropped after a poor show at Edgbaston, where he was out driving hard at the ball both times. K.L. Rahul’s top score from four innings was 13.

There were mitigating circumstances — conditions were hard and both sets of openers struggled — but it seemed India was running out of options.

At Trent Bridge, though, Dhawan and Rahul showed the team what it was missing. They left well, played the ball late, did not chase deliveries with hard hands, and ran quick singles when the opportunity arose. Their effort in the first innings laid the foundation for a big total, and ensured India started the match on the front foot.

Dhawan deserves credit for turning things around, and tailoring his game to suit prevailing conditions. His record in England and his failure in the first Test had raised questions over his suitability for the role of an opener overseas, but his disciplined yet positive approach here was commendable.

“The way Shikhar made the changes to his batting, the way he reduced his bat speed, the way he played the ball later — these adjustments he made in the last six-seven days (leading up to the third Test), he should get credit,” Sanjay Bangar said after the opening day’s play.

“K.L. Rahul, too, was playing on the backfoot, he was reacting after the ball’s movement. These changes the batsmen have made make me hopeful for the rest of the series.”

The importance of the opening partnership was not lost on India’s batting coach. “The start Shikhar and Rahul gave us, that was crucial,” he said. “We all know that with the Dukes ball, the first 10-15 overs can be crucial. If teams bat well for 30-35 overs and show discipline, they can cash in later on. [India’s batsmen] were playing a lot later, a lot of batsmen used some shots square of the wicket and overall I think the discipline was far, far better.”

Rahul was cautious in the first innings here, but with confidence restored and the cushion of a 191-run lead behind him, the Karnataka man was more fluent in the second. His last three dismissals have been to the ball coming in; it is something he and Bangar will be aware of.

India’s team management must now resist the temptation to make further changes, and retain the same opening pair for the last two Tests.

There has been a musical-chairs feel to the selection of openers in the last two years, some of it due to injury. For the team’s own good, a stable partnership is essential.

Curious case of Vijay

The selectors, though, have already made changes to the squad, dropping Vijay and calling up young Prithvi Shaw. “He has done well across all formats and in different conditions; I’m 100% confident he is ready,” says chief selector M.S.K. Prasad. “He’s well-equipped and has scored enough runs. He’s technically and mentally strong. He proved that when he toured England.”

Shaw’s rise has been quick; at 18, he brings with him the giddy promise of youth and can afford to fail. Vijay, unfortunately, is at that point in his career where a cricketer’s age gets mentioned before his batting average. Prasad would not comment on Vijay’s omission, but it is worth asking if he has played his last Test.

The right-hander has been an integral part of India’s Test side and half of his dozen centuries have come in the last two years, but at 34, he will not be shown much patience. In seven overseas Tests since July 2016, he averages 12 with a top score of 46.

There were questions over the opening pair after Lord’s; the selectors seem to have decided that Vijay is not part of the answer for now.