India is only one win away from consolidating their number one spot in the ICC’s Test Match rankings, as a loss or a draw could see them slip to the second position behind Pakistan. But, it may not be their erratic West Indian hosts who stand between them and securing that pinnacle. The Caribbean weather may not be such an easy enemy for Virat Kohli’s men to master.
Rain interrupted play shortly before lunch on the first day in Trinidad, with the match having already been delayed by half an hour due to a wet outfield, which had endured heavy downpour in the days leading up to this game. The umpires had decided that the ground was fit for play for a 10:30 am start, but their worried looks at the loose footholds and run ups for the bowlers after only a few overs indicated that they may have had, on reflection, second thoughts. It was natural therefore that, after a further interruption, they would be all the more cautious in allowing resumption – and unsurprisingly called off any further play for the day relatively early.
A three-nil victorious score-line in the series would see India acknowledged as the top Test team – recent results elsewhere seeing them nudge above the other leading contenders: Australia, themselves only recently elevated to the top, ignominiously fell to a humiliating whitewash in their three-match series in Sri Lanka; while England were unable to defeat Pakistan on their home patch. Indeed, Misbah-Ul-Haq’s side's achievement in drawing that series 2-2 means that they will be the ones who’ll take possession of the Mace if India fails to win this Test at the Queen’s Park Oval.
India are unquestionably a world-class side – but there will be an irony if they do overcome the West Indies (and the elements) to win this final Test to go top the table: of the other top five teams in the rankings, India have lost their last Test series to three of them (Australia, England and New Zealand) and the last time they played Pakistan, and triumphed, was nine years ago.
Virat Kohli was right when he implied that India’s unquestioned right to the top spot will only be confirmed if they prove it with wins over their nearest rivals in their upcoming Test series against England and Australia.
They are certainly good enough to do so. The quality and especially the positivity of their cricket shows that they have what it takes: they set out to win. Even when put on the back foot in the previous Test in St Lucia, they demonstrated an application and will in their middle-order batting (in the unlikely shape of a marvellous partnership between Ravichandran Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha); and in the dynamism of their approach in the second half of that match, having lost an entire day to the weather, they marked themselves as men with a winning mentality.
In what play that was possible in Port-of-Spain on Thursday, India lost the toss and took the field. It was perhaps surprising that they took the option of going into the game a bowler lighter than in the preceding encounters, but it is hard to criticize their belief that they still have enough resources to bowl this fragile West Indies side out twice.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar began accurately, with a line and length that was full and straight. The bounce of the pitch was low, and Kohli quickly had his slip cordon move closer to the batsmen. And yet, they still weren’t quite close enough for an edge in Kumar's second over from Kraigg Brathwaite to carry to Kohli at second slip. They were just about near enough for a further edge later in the same over to carry just above the turf to the skipper’s right, but he didn’t manage to grasp the opportunity with his right hand.
At the other end, Mohammed Shami also posed some early problems, getting some useful swing that he didn’t always manage to control – too many balls swerving down the leg-side. But with the overhead conditions becoming more cloudy and steamy, and the outfield understandably damp and slow, Kohli may have reflected that this was maybe a good toss to lose.
But the seamers didn’t make an early break-through, and the openers grew in confidence, with the bowlers providing more scoring opportunities than one would expect: Leon Johnson executed a lovely extra cover drive to the fence; while Brathwaite unfurled an assured pull for four, and a crisp on-driven boundary.
This handful of shots left divots in the outfield which made the ground resemble a sodden golf-course. And it was not just the early wear and tear on the outfield that was giving the umpires cause for concern: Kumar was given an early official warning for running on the pitch in his follow-through.
Ishant Shamra was introduced in the twelfth over and struck immediately: Johnson perishing in a similar manner to his second innings dismissal in St Lucia – caught at short-leg off a rising ball, playing with hard hands and firm feet. Why he felt the need to turn the bat with his wrists towards the leg-side, rather than play a ball he could not adequately control back down the pitch, only he knows.
Darren Bravo came in at number three, and appeared more self-assured and settled at the crease than he has at any stage prior in this series – calm and smooth in his movements. He looked in fine fettle, so it was a genuine leap-out-of-your-seat moment when Ashwin bowled him with an absolute beauty of a delivery. Bowling around the wicket to the left-hander, he produced arguably the ball of the series to remove the Trinidadian.
A perfect, full-length off-break, which shaped towards middle, gripped and turned, not outrageously, but just enough to elude Bravo’s defensive push – and hit the top of the off stump. A dream delivery. The late great Richie Benaud used to say that a good spinning ball need only move half the width of a bat to conquer. This was the archetypal example.
Only another seven and a bit overs were possible before light drizzle began to fall at about a quarter past midday, and the ground-staff were quick to move into action. The full covers were going on while, still in the middle, Kohli and his men thought that this might be merely a passing shower. Sadly for everybody, the locals, with weary looks to the skies and the horizon, knew that what was approaching was far more formidable, and terminal – at least for this day.