The pink ball has finally arrived in India. And how beautiful, that it arrived to an Indian Test team in the pink of its collective health, and in the presence of an Indian pace attack that is redefining all shades of fast bowling previously known to a batting-obsessed nation.
In the continued decimation of all comers that has been the Indian home calendar in Test cricket this season, India took their domination to an even higher level on day one at Kolkata – despite never having played a day-night Test before, and despite captain Virat Kohli suggesting they would have preferred to bat first in their maiden attempt at deciphering the pink ball.
Winning the toss and opting to bat proved to be catastrophic for Bangladesh for the second game running, and this time, they only lasted 30.3 overs: The shortest first innings of a Test by a visiting team on Indian soil, and the quickest India have ended the first innings of their opponents in Test history.
The spirit-crushing victories over South Africa and Bangladesh in the last couple of months have had some standout individual performances with the bat, with India becoming the first team to record double centuries in four consecutive Tests (two for Mayank Agarwal, one each for Rohit Sharma and Kohli). But with the ball, India have been an arsenal, an army, with each soldier as capable of destruction as the other.
On this historic day, at the venue most steeped in tradition in Indian cricket, however, two workhorses who typify everything that makes India the undisputed number one side in the longest format – effort over exuberance, soul over style, mind over matter – took centre stage. This was a date that will be etched in Indian cricket annals; it belonged, more than anyone else, to Ishant Sharma and Wriddhiman Saha.
Carrying the weight, Ishant ends a lengthy wait
The last time Ishant bagged five wickets in an innings at home, the Indian XI had Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman coming in at numbers three, four and five, and Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh sharing the spin-bowling duties. The last time Ishant scalped five in a home Test, it was against Pakistan, that’s how long it has been — it was a time (2007) when India and Pakistan were still contesting in a Test series.
The last time Ishant took a fifer at home, until today, was the only time he ever took a fifer at home. And all told, he’d only returned a haul of four or more wickets on three occasions (out of 67). For perspective, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, between them, have four such hauls at home in just the last 13 months.
It’s not like he’s not been a regular – now in his 96th Test, Ishant stands behind only Kapil Dev in terms of most Tests played by an Indian fast bowler. It’s not like he hasn’t done well at home, either: Ishant, in fact, concedes one run lesser per wicket at home now (32.12) than he does away (33.34).
It’s just that, well, he’s just not that bowler, right? He doesn’t have that skiddy, slippery quality that enables Shami to run through batting lineups, especially in the second innings. He doesn’t get the kind of swing Umesh produces, be it of the conventional type with the new ball in hand, or the reverse when the ball goes old.
Ishant, instead, is that other guy. One who runs in through the day, who toils for long, unforgiving periods (surely you remember “ek aur daalega?”), who does the job. And while his returns, figures-wise, may not have been the most decorated, he’s had the respect of all his captains, and all his fellow pacers – in addition to his spot in the XI – through the decade-plus it’s been since that glorious Perth morning in 2008 when he had Ricky Ponting dancing to his tunes.
You almost sensed that comparative lack of wickets might have been on his mind, at least subconsciously, when he engaged in that heart-melting show of camaraderie that was the all-pace interview to the broadcasters after the Indore Test. "What are you doing that whenever you hit the pads, it's out… When we hit the pad, it's missing the stumps. Why does this happen?"
These were Ishant’s questions to Shami. Today, on this landmark of days, it was Ishant’s chance to be king – and not kingmaker.
The recent past proves it was no aberration either; since the start of 2018, Ishant has averaged 17.36 in Tests at home (compared to a career mark of 32.12), and even more impressively, brought his strike rate down to 36.4 (career mark 66.6).
That it came on a day when an Indian pace attack combined to take all 10 wickets in an innings in a Test at home for only the fourth time – and the second in 35 years – will be the biggest source of satisfaction for the leader of India’s once-in-a-lifetime battery.
Step aside Superman, enter Wriddhi-Man
Wriddhiman Saha enjoys returning to the Eden Gardens. This, of course, is where it all began, where he became what he is.
On his maiden first-class appearance, at this revered temple in 2007, he had become only the 15th Bengal player to score a hundred on Ranji debut. When he got his first chance to represent the country in a game at the Eden, he lapped it up with a Man-of-the-Match effort against New Zealand in 2016, hitting unbeaten half-centuries in both innings of what was a low-scoring affair.
Saha is regarded highly-enough by those immediately around him, as well as the larger cricket community – he’s the “best in the world”, according to his captain and several others – but like Ishant, he has to live with the knowledge that his best work, typically, doesn’t make it scoreboards, or highlight reels.
A cricket scorecard can, arbitrarily, tell you the byes a ‘keeper conceded; will it ever tell you how many he stopped? If it did, Saha would have been a world-record holder today.
Sure, the catch (read: screamer) he took to dismiss Mahmudullah, and provide Ishant his second breakthrough of the day, will, fortunately, make it to all highlight reels. But if you missed a majority of the 30-odd overs India were in the field, how you wish you could have seen the diminutive Saha leap acrobatically to the left, dive wistfully to the right and jump unabatedly to twice his height to keep up with the swerving, roving cherry that was the pink ball.
Wicket-keeping in cricket is somewhat akin to managing in football – it only really comes in the spotlight when things start going downhill. Now ask yourself, when was the last time you heard anything all-too-much about Wriddhiman Saha? You didn’t.
Oh, and did I mention he’s 35? Move over, Clark Kent. Because behind the stumps, India presently have someone more than a bird, more than a plane.
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