India avoid an encore of the bad old days

August 26, 2021

This day of cricket was supposed to be a rude reality check for the utterly pampered and spoiled followers of Indian cricket who started post 2015. They had been bowled out for 78, the pitch had flattened out, the opposition had got off to a start and there was a long day staring them in the face. They knew they couldn't bowl as full as England did because any assistance from the pitch had vanished. They knew the batters were under no scoreboard pressure.

This was the kind of day that had become commonplace watching India's rag-tag bowling attack in 2011 and 2011-12. It was as though India were providing writing and meme material to Sacred Games: "utho, nahao, pito, so jao (wake up, take a bath, get hit, go back to sleep)." Such a day was feared in Australia earlier this year when almost all of India's first-choice bowling unit was out with injury. It didn't materialise.

For patches on day two, especially when Ishant Sharma was having his rare bad Test, it seemed finally the sufferers of 2011 and 2011-12 might be able to tell younger followers, this is what it feels like. And still, India came out with 303 for 8, which, in isolation, is not a bad effort at all in the best batting conditions of the series and in a match situation where there is no pressure on the batters. Five wickets in the final session is something they can even be proud of.

These days are a lose-lose day. If you bowl a side out on such a day, it is probably worse news for your team because that means batting in the second innings is not going to be easy. So all you hope for is to stick to restrictive plans and slowly work towards the odd wicket.

Only problem is, Ishant was truly off colour. Ishant was having perhaps his first ordinary Test in seven years. He was cut away for three boundaries in his first four overs. The last time he conceded more than three boundaries in a whole Test - to the cut shot - was in December 2017*. It doesn't need GPS trackers to know he was slower in his run-up than he probably has ever been. The speeds were down too. He bowled 22 overs without a maiden, the longest an opening bowler has gone without one in England since 2002.

All bar four of Ishant's dearer spells than this came before 2015. That he has had to be so drastically off rhythm to be reminded of those bad old days is testament to his turnaround. Those bad old days were when often he would be the only bowler fit enough to toil for long spells. Here he had Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah to pick up the slack. In an innings that Ishant and Mohammed Siraj drew a mistake once every 10 balls or slower, Bumrah and Shami kept doing so once an over.

Shami of late has become a bowler whom you can wake up in the middle of the night and he will run up and start bowling with an upright seam on the shorter part of the good-length band. If Shami doesn't draw any movement from a pitch, you can call an excavation party, you won't find it. The only drawback with Shami on days like this one is that he is an aggressive bowler and keeps attacking the stumps. Over time, though, he has eliminated some of the deliveries that used to end up on leg.

The Rory Burns wicket he took was a perfect illustration: hitting top of off after seaming the ball in. Jonny Bairstow went fishing outside off, and Jos Buttler fell to the leg trap. If Shami brought the run rate down through wickets, Bumrah was more methodical. He just bowled lengths that were hard to hit, resulting in 10 maidens out of 27 and an economy rate of 2.14 in an innings that went at 3.27 an over.

Joe Root has been batting like a dream, averaging 126.75 in the series, but Bumrah has dismissed him three times for an average of 33. All three have been great deliveries, making him play without being full, moving the ball each way. Twice coming into this Test, it had been outside edges; at Leeds he managed to go past the inside edge from a similar pitching point.

This was an important day for India even though it won't have much say on this Test. Any salvaging process will have to start with the bat. But this is the start of three back-to-back Tests, and India would have hated to be kept in the field for two days. It is hard to make a comeback in a series after successive bad days in the field; imagine if England had made it three in a row.

Shami said it was a day when it is the bowler's responsibility to not let their heads go down, but to keep finding a way to make it difficult for the batters. While Ishant's fitness and form will be a matter of concern, the two big fast bowlers managed to achieve that fairly well given the conditions and match situation. In the process they avoided an encore of the bad old days.

*0528 GMT The cut-shot qualifier for Ishant's boundaries conceded was erroneously omitted in the first version of this article.

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