India's quicks answer the big question, and some smaller ones

August 04, 2021

It was a bold decision to leave R Ashwin out of India's XI for the Trent Bridge Test, but was it a wise one?

The question kept many of us thinking for a while, certainly through the first session of the game after Joe Root elected to bat first. Ashwin had been in the form of his life, and even picked up a six-for in the one-off County Championship match he played for Surrey during the three-week break after India lost the World Test Championship final in June against New Zealand.

In the WTC final, Ashwin had been part of the five-man bowling group that featured three fast bowlers as well as Ravindra Jadeja. Playing two spinners in overcast and rainy conditions in Southampton had been a questionable move in itself, but India believed that having both Ashwin and Jadeja, both capable batters, allowed them the best team balance.

Not everyone was convinced, though.

The question asked back then was: wouldn't Shardul Thakur, who had shown he could bowl and bat during the epic victory in Brisbane in January, have been a better choice instead of one of the two spinners? Today, India left out Ashwin, retained Jadeja, and played Thakur to make it a 4-1 bowling combination with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj the other quicks.

It was a gutsy move by India, and tactically sound, considering that Trent Bridge has for over a decade - at least - favoured fast bowlers. That aside, overcast conditions are forecast for the duration of the Test.

The question changed after that: could India's fast bowlers do the job?

Part of the answer came in the first over itself. Bumrah's first four deliveries to Rory Burns swung away from the left-hand batter. With every delivery, Bumrah was getting closer and closer to forcing Burns to play. Having got the opponent's attention, Bumrah tilted the seam inwards and trapped Burns lbw with a delivery that pitched on a length and moved in. Punching his right fist, Bumrah let out a roar - it set the tempo and mood for the rest of the day for the Indians.

Next over, first ball, Shami got going with a beautiful awaygoing seamer, which Dom Sibley was unaffected by as it was pitched on the fourth stump.

Upright seam, pitching in and around the length area, and wearing down the resolve of the batter with a thorough cross-examination of the outside edge - that has been Shami's modus operandi in recent years. Today was no different, except he would end up finetuning his length and line slightly from the second part of his first spell.

As per Cricday's ball-by-ball numbers, in the seven-over first spell before lunch, 71% of Shami's deliveries were pitched on a good length or fuller. Post-lunch, that increased to 77%, with 46 out of 60 deliveries landing there. In fact, the percentage of full-length deliveries increased from 9% in the first session to 20% after lunch. The improvisation was necessary and created an immediate impact as Shami bagged three wickets.

Precision was also Bumrah's key weapon as he attacked the stumps ball after ball. Awayswingers, indippers and toe-crushing yorkers kept batters living in clear and present danger. Jos Buttler was so uncomfortable that at one point he went flashing hard at an outswinger. At the other end, Root did well not to bury his head in his hands.

But Buttler had not played a first-class match since the second Test of the India tour in February. He had come into the Test on the back of playing a couple of matches in the Hundred. His mindset was all hit or miss. That airy flash came off the 16th delivery he had faced. Two balls later, Butter duly edged to Rishabh Pant. He hadn't scored a run.

Barring Root, England's batters were all at sea against Bumrah and Shami. England's control percentage against Bumrah was 66.9 and it was 72.7 against Shami.

Between 2014 and lunch on the first day here, among overseas fast bowlers in England, Shami and Bumrah created the highest number of false shots per wicket at 18.96 and 18.87 respectively. After lunch, both got three wickets each, with Shami inducing 14 false shots and Bumrah 28.

Overall, India forced Root and his men to play 115 out of 390 balls. Bharat Arun, the Indian bowling coach, would be a happy man considering Siraj and Thakur, bowling for the first time with a Dukes ball in a Test match in England, were not overwhelmed or distracted by the movement on offer.

Talking to Sky Sports at stumps, Thakur said that while it was difficult to adjust to the changing conditions throughout the day as the sun and clouds exchanged positions, the key was to work out the lengths and lines and stick to the plans considering the ball was not moving so much in the air. Shami validated that, saying the ball was actually gripping the surface at times.

Thakur does not have the pace, but he can move the ball in the air away from the bat effortlessly. He did that consistently to lure the batters into going for shots as Virat Kohli left the extra-cover pocket vacant. Thakur would eventually shift to straighter lines - that resulted in him trapping Root with a fullish delivery that caught the England captain totally off guard.

Siraj had done the same just before lunch when he twice broke through Zak Crawley's defence in one over by seaming the ball into the pads - both were reviewed by Kohli and the second was upheld by the TV umpire.

India have suffered major self-inflicted wounds in the past with questionable team selections outside India: think Lord's 2018 or the first two Tests of the 2017-18 tour of South Africa, when they dropped Ajinkya Rahane, and even the WTC final. Today their reading of the conditions and the pitch paid off as the pace quartet dominated England.

India also ticked another longstanding issue overseas: wrapping up the lower order quickly after doing the hard work against the specialist batters. It was a key reason India failed in 2018 when England's lower order bounced back in the first Test at Edgbaston and then in the fourth at the Ageas Bowl.

Today, though, India's four fast men were in no mood to cede the advantage. They were persistent and relentless.

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