It was West Indies’ day. They haven’t had many of those in the current series against India – indeed they haven’t had many at all in the recent years of Test cricket. But the inspiration they garnered from their heroic last-day effort to save the Sabina Park Test, the second Test in the series, was apparent on Tuesday.
They began well, even before a ball was bowled, by selecting a starting eleven that was both bold and forward-looking – most particularly in the brave selection of exciting young fast bowler, Alzarri Joseph. For the first Test in Antigua, the West Indies selectors signalled a cautious, perhaps even cowardly approach – packing the side with all-rounders in the hope of batting deep and offering resistance to the more experienced, and superior, Indian tourists. The visitors, by contrast, had been far more positive, and included a full complement of bowling options, even though that meant Ravichandran Ashwin had to bat at number six.
But the West Indies’ bowling had lacked genuine cutting thrust, apart from pace-bowler Shannon Gabriel, who was timidly supported in the seam department by the steady, but nonthreatening Test captain, Jason Holder, and Carlos Brathwaite – who was confirmed this week as the successor to Daren Sammy, as the leader of the T20 side.
But the batting failed them woefully, and did so again in the 2nd Test, until the fifth day fight-back by Roston Chase, Shane Dowrich, Jermaine Blackwood and Holder. They had shown a little more intent with the inclusion of Barbados quick bowler Miguel Cummins to partner Gabriel, but for four days it presaged little change in fortunes.
But ‘what a difference a day makes’ – as sung most beautifully by Dinah Washington. That last day in Kingston was enough to convince the West Indies selectors that the performance was something to build on, and now was the time to be more daring in nominating their final XI.
Leg-spinner Devandra Bishoo was omitted, and in for his debut came 19-year-old Joseph – who was awarded his cap by West Indies manager and former fast-bowling great, Joel Garner. Joseph had announced his presence on the world stage earlier this year in Bangladesh when he spearheaded the bowling attack of a West Indies team that, against all expectation, won the Under-19 World Cup, defeating favourites India in the final.
On a bright Tuesday in St Lucia, Holder won the toss and put India to bat, and unleashed his old-fashioned looking four-pronged pace-attack; immediately putting Joseph centre-stage, to share the new-ball with Gabriel. Both were quick, hostile and testing. Neither was afraid to pitch short and make the Indians hop around – though they regularly aimed very full at the stumps as well. Indeed, Gabriel began the match with two full tosses and a half-volley, with all of them being steered for a couple of runs.
Joseph, making his Test debut with only eight first-class outings behind him, seemed nerveless and found his range and pace straight away. Ian Bishop warned us on commentary to ‘temper our expectations’ of this thrilling newcomer, but the Antiguan confirmed his promise and danger with an early shout for LBW.
But it was the powerful Gabriel (who more and more resembles the great Charlie Griffith in physique) who made the initial breakthrough: attempting a bouncer at Shikhar Dhawan, he was fortunate to see the opener feather it down the legside to the wicket keeper. This brought Virat Kohli to the crease, who’d moved himself up the order to the pivotal number three slot.
The first ball he received from young Joseph will not be forgotten by the Indian captain in a hurry: it was short, and reared up towards Kohli's head, who never took his eye off the ball, but nevertheless nearly ended up on his backside in repelling the assault. Only an outstretched gloved-hand to break his descent kept him from the turf.
It was an unsettling, and important moment. One of the world’s best batsmen had been almost put on the canvas by the newcomer’s first punch. If that was a near-indignity that may linger in Kohli’s mind, minutes later Joseph enjoyed a moment that he will remember forever.
In his next over, his third, he got a fast and bouncy delivery to climb from short of a length and take the shoulder of Kohli’s bat where it flew to first slip for a straightforward catch. What a scalp for your first wicket in Test cricket! It may have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that the ball had been a shade too quick for the great Virat.
That was certainly the case for the following ball, Ajinkya Rahane’s first. He managed to avoid a dismissal, or a more painful impact, but he got in an awful twist as the ball was upon him before he was properly in a position to deal with it – jabbing it to Earth from mid-air with his hands, arms and head in a contorted muddle.
During the U-19 World Cup we’d grown used to seeing batsmen ill-equipped and too slow to repel Joseph. But seeing high-quality Test batsmen in such a quandary is very different from watching 18-year-old Zimbabwean’s and Bangladeshi’s squirm.
The tone for the day had been set. In the course of a session, West Indies had evolved from being a nobody in Test cricket to being a force to be reckoned with – and India were now firmly on the back foot. The third wicket partnership of Lokesh Rahul and Rahane rebuilt the innings somewhat, but the departure of Rahul (a gift to off-spinner Chase) just before lunch confirmed the session as West Indies’.
Joseph returned after the interval and immediately removed Rohit Sharma – caught behind off a good length ball which looked as though it could have been left alone, but actually shaped into him and arced away. What followed was attrition. Rahane and Ashwin added 39 runs in just under twenty-four overs; cricket that inspired the commentators, Sanjay Manjrekar and Sunil Gavaskar, to talk at length wistfully about another sporting event currently underway somewhere in South America.
With such (understandable) plodding from the batsmen, Holder was able to rotate his fast men, and utilize his slow bowlers, Chase and Kraigg Brathwaite in a holding operation. The situation was a stalemate, that surely made for stale viewing for some – though personally I was engrossed – but if anyone did doze off in their armchairs then they probably missed the big, dipping full-toss Chase looped up to Rahane shortly before tea – the batsman did, and he was bowled.
After tea, it was more of the same: tough, slow-going. The West Indies over-rate was abysmal, and saw only 52 overs bowled across the first two sessions. And the batting became quietly accumulative. Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha ground out the singles and boundaries, on what looked a very slow outfield, were few and far between. The first session had yielded 87 runs; the afternoon a mere 43 in 29 overs; and the final session 104 in 38 overs – bolstered in the last hour as Ashwin and Saha had a late flurry against the new ball.
They survived the odd scare: a missed run-out opportunity; and Ashwin being caught at point off Gabriel – but the Trinidadian, bowling around the wicket had cut the return crease with his back-foot in the delivery stride, and the no-ball reprieved the batsman.
It could be that Ashwin’s contribution will prove to be vital, if this turns out to be a low-scoring game – and if the rest of the Indian line-up can keep grinding out invaluable runs, they could yet prove to be match-winning.
Updated Date: Aug 10, 2016 12:34:56 IST