Virat Kohli's famous last words, or how India misread the conditions

Joe Root found a reason to smile despite losing the toss to Virat Kohli
August 25, 2021

As far as famous last words go, Virat Kohli's surprise at being able to see the surface as opposed to just grass a day before a Test in England is right up there, the underlying suggestion being that the hosts have chosen less spice having burnt themselves previously. Then you win the toss, put your money where your mouth is, bat first, and end the day in deficit without even taking a wicket, the first time it has happened in Test cricket since the last Test of 2010.

It won't be an overstatement that India misread the conditions at a ground each one of them was playing for the first time. While England extracted more seam and more swing early in the innings than they have done so far in the series, by the time India got to bowl, the conditions had settled down so much that India didn't even manage to draw one false response per over as against 1.75 per over in India's innings, the highest rate for the series. Forget the wickets, if an evenly matched opposition is drawing one more mistake per over than you, you have got the wrong end of the conditions. In this case, you chose it.

It is no surprise Joe Root was happy to lose the toss. Root knew the nature of the pitch at Headingley of late has been to be extremely difficult on day one before getting better and better to bat on, but he probably didn't have the conviction to put India in after losing at Lord's having done the same. He called the surface "tacky", and the early seam movement was consistent with that description. So he said he was unsure what he would have done. He probably would have bowled anyway.

Having said that, this is hardly the first time a side has been caught on the wrong side of such conditions in England. Even England themselves chose to bat in the 2009 Ashes at Headingley, and were bowled out in 33.5 overs only to watch Australia score 445. Batting first is seen as the noble thing, the brave thing, to do in Test cricket. Nasser Hussain is lampooned for bowling first at the Gabba, but not Andrew Strauss for that call at Headingley.

Some of India's big wins - be it as old as Headingley 2002 or as recent as Wanderers 2017-18 - have come after choosing to bat first on a tricky surface. You have to weigh putting your batters through that tough period against the incentive you get bowling last: Headingley of late has not made it worth the trouble.

Quite rightly, India have strived to become so good that they become immune to selection mistakes and such calls at the toss because there is no fool-proof way to be accurate with decisions that have to last five days. So having made the decision they did, India needed to either last that early help or hope that the help lasted well into England's innings.

Neither happened, something you can't predict, which puts onus on the way India batted much more than the fact that they batted. The latter is anyway keeping in with uncontested cricketing wisdom that you bat first barring exceptional conditions, the kind you see in New Zealand where pitches just keep getting better to bat on with time.

India came up against a new-ball spell of a master, who was now operating with an inverted form of attack but with characteristic high accuracy. James Anderson usually bowls outswingers looking for the outside edge and changes up with balls that come in, be it the traditional inswinger or the wobble-seam ball. India's openers have frustrated him this series by leaving alone a lot of those outswingers.

Here Anderson kept bringing the ball in, taking away that leave, getting India into a habit of playing more at the ball. Also England showed better grasp of the conditions. Sony, the broadcasters in India, showed how the average wicket-taking length at Headingley has been significantly fuller than at other English grounds since 2010. That usually points to assistance. England were not shy to get it right up there.

A mix of inswingers and that full length got KL Rahul driving in the first over. The ball seamed away after swinging in in the air, which is a really difficult ball to play, but the question Rahul and India will ask is if he needed to play at that ball even before finding out if there was seam movement available. Rahul has been a revelation on this tour, and has been a major part of the reason India are 1-0 up in the series, but he has done so by leaving a lot of balls before committing to drives. Was this early drive an extension of their assessment of the pitch?

Another batter who will be disappointed with himself is Cheteshwar Pujara. There are limitations to his batting, but there is a big strength too: he plays under his eye. There might be 99 flaws with his game, but pushing away from the body is not one of them. Over this summer, though, he has done that to get out in the World Test Championship final, in the Lord's Test, and now here. This outswinger seamed away a touch after pitching, but Pujara will know his hands shouldn't have followed the movement. More than the lack of runs, this manner of dismissal repeating itself will irk Pujara.

Kohli fell to the same set-up as at Trent Bridge. Anderson bowls the wobble-seam ball that swings in - this time later than it did in Nottingham - and then leaves him after pitching. In Kohli's case, the shot selection is not the problem. He played drives at this same ball in 2018, and got away with it. He has scored all the thousands of runs he has done playing this shot. This is not the first time this shot - or the defensive push to wide balls - has got him in trouble, but his attitude has been: I will not shelve the shots, but will play them better. That is an internal tussle we have not seen the last of this summer.

Rishabh Pant played the way he has been playing for a while now, a way that is not too unusual for a wicketkeeper-batter. Just that he is not enjoying as much luck these days as he did in, say, Sydney. Dismissals outside these four were normal responses to long spells of tight bowling in helpful conditions.

Pant probably summed the day up the best: "They took the heavy roller, the wicket was much more settled down, and they batted nicely also. But when we batted, the wicket was slightly soft, and they bowled in good areas, but we could have applied [ourselves] much better…"

As is the case often with such collapses, it is the perfect storm of excellent bowling, tough conditions, most mistakes getting punished - India were bowled out in 71 mistakes, England didn't lose a single wicket in 34 - and some lack of application. What should worry India more is how some of India's bowling was insipid and made the pitch look easier to bat on. It is easier to come back in a series from batting collapses than from successive ordinary bowling days.

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