Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja showed admirable resolve in the pulsating final hour at Rajkot to draw the first Test on Sunday. But in putting India through the wringer, England scored a clear moral victory and enter the second Test in Visakhapatnam today as equals, not underdogs.
Predictions of a 0-5 drubbing for Alastair Cook and Co.—including by some former India players—had flourished before the series began. To be fair, though, this was not so much about bigotry, as it was about the way the series played out in India in the past couple of decades.
Most overseas teams have come to grief, undone by trepidations about pitches, the weather, but most importantly—though not readily accepted—the technical inadequacies of their players.
What chance then for England, who arrived here in the wake of a defeat to Bangladesh? Where and how would they find the wherewithal to compete against a team that seemed richer in talent and was certainly more experienced?
The fact that India had lost to England at home in 2012-13 did not seem to have great relevance. Some of England’s stellar performers then—Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen—had either retired or lost their place in the side.
That India had lost an away series too in 2014 wasn’t seen as much of a dampener either. Conditions in England differ vastly from the subcontinent. If anything, this was a splendid opportunity to exact revenge.
Moreover, India had beaten New Zealand 3-0 this season, and a few months before that, beaten the West Indies 2-0. Indeed, India had not lost a Test after the first match played in Sri Lanka more than a year ago.
In the period since, Virat Kohli had struck a purple patch as captain, winning 10 out of 13 Tests (losing none) and almost every player looked in top form. Could a side in such red-hot form be stopped?
In five absorbing days, against all odds, England managed just that. As the high-scoring match suddenly veered towards an unlikely defeat for India on the last day, scepticism about the visiting team was replaced by serious questions about the home side.
India were outplayed in all departments. Shoddy fielding allowed England to tide over periods of uncertainty and post 537. As the match progressed, not only did England’s batsmen play spin better, their spinners also made India’s batsmen look vulnerable.
Even a cursory look at match statistics tells a story. England scored more runs and more centuries than India. More pertinently, their slow bowlers—with half the experience of their counterparts—got more help from the pitch and took more wickets than India’s spin trio.
This was a dramatic upheaval in a predetermined script that now has to be revised. England appear to have found the men, methods and morale to believe that they can spring a surprise in the series: In fact, this may well have become their mission.
India, hopefully, will have learnt some serious lessons from Rajkot. Kohli mentioned after the match that it was also important for his players to learn how to draw games. This is mature thinking which needs to resonate in the dressing room.
The advantage of playing at home remains, and the form of key frontline batsmen—Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli—was impressive, despite the second innings scare. Perhaps India might shore up the batting with another specialist.
It would be unfair and foolish to read too much into R. Ashwin’s lack of wickets. This is the first time in over a year that he has had poor returns, and the law of averages applies even to the best. If anything, Ashwin’s competitive urge will have been whetted.
But there is no scope for complacency. India saved the Rajkot Test, but have lost the momentum that earned them the ICC No.1 ranking earlier this season. Regaining this will need regrouping quickly, rethinking tactics, revitalizing ambition.
England have sounded the bugle for an unexpected reprisal, the threat is real.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.