If Wednesday's events are anything to go by, India are in for the first real challenge in their long home Test season, with the Englishmen producing a luminous display with the bat.
India were the run-away favourites ahead of the opening Test, given the way they had dominated South Africa and New Zealand on home surfaces before this series. England captain Alastair Cook had no qualms in admitting that their team were the underdogs — their struggles against spin in their last tour of Bangladesh being one of the factors behind the notion.
The Indians, however, were served a rude wake-up call by Joe Root and Moeen Ali, with the duo milking the bowling attack led by Mohammed Shami for runs freely, and guiding the visitors to a commanding score of 311 for 4 at the end of the first day's play. There were quite a few areas of concern that the hosts had been exposed to by the time the umpires called for stumps, and there's a plenty of catching up for them to do if they are to win in the coming days.
It was an uneasy start for the hosts after skipper Virat Kohli lost his first toss on home soil. His English counterpart Cook, having read the conditions as one that would be batting friendly for the first couple of days, did not hesitate in cashing in on the opportunity and opted to bat first.
For once, the Indians were actually on the backfoot when it came to wresting the early advantage. However, given their record of dominating in their own backyard, the lost toss didn't initially seem to count for much.
That would have indeed been the case had the slip fielders taken the early chances created in the initial spell by Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav. Ajinkya Rahane, who has a reputation of being one of the best slip fielders in the world, failed to hold on to an easy chance in the slips on the third ball of the day after Cook misjudged the bounce off a short delivery from Shami.
The Indians had fielded brilliantly in their recent outings against both West Indies and New Zealand across formats, and one would have expected them to maintain status quo heading into this series, if not improve things further.
As if to counter that point, Kohli dropped Cook again — this time in the very next over bowled by Umesh — though it was a slightly tough chance. India's horror outing in the field continued, with Murali Vijay dropping a sitter of debutant Haseeb Hameed in the sixth over, giving the teenager another chance. A couple of more opportunities dropped short of the fielders, with the Indians suddenly seeming to have endured the wrath of lady luck.
"Whether you bat or bowl first, you need to make the first session count. There were unfortunately a couple of dropped catches which did not allow us to make those early dents into their bating line-up. That set us back," Indian batting coach Sanjay Bangar rued after the day's play.
To add to the fielding woes, pace spearhead Shami appeared to be clutching the back of his thigh in the 61st over — the start of his third spell. The team physio had to escort him back to the dressing room as Umesh completed the over, and thoughts of losing one of his key weapons started to haunt Kohli. The problem persisted when Shami returned towards the fag end of the final session, although this time he resisted the pain to bowl out the remaining overs.
While there are back-up options for Shami for the hosts for in the likes of Ishant Sharma and Hardik Pandya, Shami's accuracy and his ability to get the ball to reverse swing at any stage of the day has made him an indispensable member of the side since his return from injury earlier this year. It remains to be seen how Kohli uses Shami in the coming days, ensuring he doesn't stretch his fitness too far while staying in the hunt for getting a breakthrough.
The Indian spin duo of Ashwin and Jadeja, who have been a nightmare for visiting batsmen in the last two Test series' in India, somewhat made up for the fielding lapses with a fruitful spell of bowling in the latter half of the first session. Jadeja got rid of the dangerous Cook with 47 on board by trapping him lbw. However, this was a decision Cook should have reviewed, given that replays showed the ball missing leg.
Ashwin, India's leading wicket-taker in their last four Test series, then put the Englishmen under pressure — perhaps for the first time in the day — by sending Hameed and Ben Duckett back to the pavilion later that session. At 102 for 3, India seemed to have gained the upper hand as they walked back to the pavilion for lunch.
It took some superlative batting by Root — hailed as one of the best of this era alongside the likes of Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson — as well as by Moeen to take the game away from the hosts. While Root was batting sensationally, just like he has for a majority of this year so far, Moeen proved just how useful a batsman he can be in the middle-order. No plan seemed to be working for the spinners against the pair, who were using their feet beautifully and getting boundaries at regular intervals. Ashwin was badly hit, conceding over 100 runs (108-2) in the first innings of a home Test for the first time since 2013.
The 179-run fourth-wicket stand between the two could have potentially ruined the hosts' pursuit of revenge against the side who have tormented them in recent times. While Umesh did manage to break the stand — albeit in controversial circumstances after appearing to have lost control of the ball while celebrating a return catch — Moeen stood firm alongside an aggressive all-rounder and fellow left-hand bat in Ben Stokes to ensure the hosts crossed the 300-run mark by the end of the final session. This was the first time a visiting team in India have crossed that milestone in the last 21 innings.
The only note of disappointment for the all-rounder would be the fact that he was stranded on 99 when the umpire flicked the bails off the non-striker's stumps to announce the end of day's play.
With the Englishmen tasting success on a track conducive for batting on the opening day of the first Test, they have given themselves the opportunity to pile on a huge total — one that will help their average bowling attack exert scoreboard pressure on the Indian batsmen, and hope they end up making mistakes while tackling the same.
The Indian batting line-up, with its world-class members and depth, will always be a force to be reckoned with, especially after the kind of performances that Kohli and local boy Cheteshwar Pujara have put up in their recent innings. But if they are to press for a win in this match, the bowling attack has to come up with a counter-attack on the second day.
First Published On : Nov 9, 2016 19:48 IST