It was an epoch-making victory at the Oval 47 years ago by the Ajit Wadekar-led Indian side. That was the first time India had won a Test match and a series in Ol’ Blighty. Can Virat Kohli’s team create history once again, at the Oval (Kia Oval now), by making a spectacular comeback and wining the series 3-2?
India, 1-2 down in the series, now plays England in the fourth Test at the Aeges Bowl, Southampton beginning August 30 and then at the Kia Oval, in the final Test, from 7 September onwards.
Only once has a team come back from being 0-2 down to win the series 3-2 in 141 years of Test cricket. That feat was achieved by the formidable bunch of players led by Sir Don Bradman in 1936-37. What was different about that historic fight back was that Australia was playing at home. Thanks to the genius of Bradman, after losing the Tests at Brisbane and Sydney, England were thrashed twice at Melbourne and once at Adelaide.
If India pulls off an incredible 3-2 win in the series, away from home, to win the coveted Pataudi Trophy, it will be a feat no team has achieved in the history of Test cricket. As we head into the Southampton Test, next week, a series win for India may look improbable. But then, for a team that is ranked number one in Test cricket, impossible is nothing.
Led by the effervescent Kohli, the Indian team has made a dramatic comeback into the series with a convincing win at Trent Bridge. The itinerant Indians had displayed atrocious batting form and poor technique in the first two Tests, at Edgbaston and at Lord’s, and therefore the fight back in the third Test was praiseworthy. The message from the victory at Trent Bridge for the Indians was: Flamboyance and style can win you white-ball matches; to win Tests, you need mental discipline.
What did India do differently in the third Test? To begin with, Kohli’s team was put into bat on a rather slow track by Root. That’s perhaps where England lost the initiative. Even experienced bowlers like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad weren’t able to derive pace, movement and bounce from the sluggish track on the first day. Despite the openers, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul staying put for nearly 20 overs, India was soon 82 for 3. Kohli and the off-form Ajinkya Rahane then put their heads down to add 159 runs for the fourth wicket. The Indians ended the day at 307 for 6.
If ‘dame fortune’ was on England’s side at Edgbaston and at Lord’s, she decided to team up with the Indians at Trent Bridge. It rained on the second day, and the sky remained overcast pretty much throughout the day. The ball was wobbling about and darting off the pitch. After India was shot out for 327, early on the second day, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma bowled well to trouble the English batsmen. But Hardik Pandya, who was brought into the attack only because Ravichandran Ashwin had a hip injury, ran through the England batting, picking five wickets for 28 runs in six overs. England was all out for 161 in 38.2 overs; conceding a demoralizing lead of 168 runs!
With conditions slightly better on the third day, India declared at 352 for 7, thanks to Kohli’s second hundred in the series and Cheteshwar Pujara’s fighting knock of 72 in 208 deliveries. Chasing 521 runs for a win, with two days to spare, was a daunting task for the Englishmen. The only take away from that match for England then was the 169-run partnership between Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, as England made 317 in 104.5 overs. Bumrah, as is his wont, produced some unplayable deliveries to help India win by 203 runs.
Skipper Kohli was declared man-of-the-match. For me, however, the man who won the Test match for India wasn’t Kohli, Rahane, Pujara or Bumrah. It was Pandya with that five-wicket haul. The young all-rounder would know, as every fast bowler does, that such spells happen; they are not bowled. Those six overs literally broke the back of the English batting line up. If the England side had inched closer to the 300 mark in the first innings, they would probably have won the match. Therefore, Pandya’s wickets were crucial.
Coming to the pertinent issue, then: Can India win the series?
To do that, the Indians need to first win the Test at the Aeges Bowl, Southampton. Only then can they think of winning the Test at the Kia Oval, and with it the series. Their focus therefore should be only on winning the fourth Test as of now.
India will probably go into the Southampton Test with the same 11, with Ravindra Jadeja perhaps replacing the injured Ashwin. England, on the other hand, will have a few changes. Their lineup for the fourth Test could well be: Cook, Moeen Ali, Root, Pope, Vince/Bairstow, Stokes, Buttler, Curran, Woakes, Broad and Anderson. Since it has been raining on and off in Southampton and the forecast for the end of the month is overcast skies, pace and swing will dominate.
In my opinion, it will be India’s batting versus England’s bowling. India therefore will need to bat better than England to win the Test. This will again be possible if Kohli, Rahane and Pujara put their heads down and play long innings. There will be the odd edge every now and then, and playing and missing will be the norm, but only mental fortitude and focus will help India put up a sizeable total.
The vital difference between India and England, at Trent Bridge, was their slip-catching. Kohli and a few others were lucky to be dropped early in their innings, while Rahul, for India, was outstanding. The England coach and skipper will likely crack the whip to improve their catching before the next Test.
Finally, the all important question: Who will lift the Pataudi Trophy? If India wins the Southampton Test, then India will win the series and create history. It is most likely that the winning momentum will carry them to the winner’s podium. Of course, if England wins at Southampton, then they will take away the Pataudi Trophy and in all probability, they will also win the Kia Oval Test. The series result will depend a lot upon the weather and which side ‘dame fortune’ decides to be on.
Many decades ago, a Yorkshire cricketer was asked about the prospects of the annual Roses match in the County championship that year. The Roses match is a County game between Yorkshire and Lancashire. That player had said, “If God is on their side, they’ll win. If God is on our side, we’ll win. But if God decides to stay out of this ruddy match, we will hand the Red Roses a right old walloping.”
England skipper, Joe Root is a Yorkshireman, my friends. He’ll surely hope God is on his side for the next couple of weeks or that He stays the ruddy hell out of the whole affair.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer.