Image Courtesy: BCCI
Throughout the build-up to this fifth and final Test at the Oval, there has been an odd talk about score-lines. The Indian dressing room was unhappy about being down 3-1 in the series, for they felt that they had played better. Both coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli felt that it didn’t reflect how India competed and fought in this series.
What they say is true, because after losing the fifth Test by 118 runs, the 4-1 score-line is even more heavily skewered in England’s favour. A few years down the line, when we look back at what Kohli’s Indian team achieved or didn’t achieve, very few people will remember that they had chance to save face until the last session of this fifth Test and the series as a whole.
Yes, it finished 4-1, but it could easily have been 3-2. Until the end, like in Birmingham and Southampton, the Oval Test also seesawed from one end to another, before resting in England’s favour. Despite this, we might just remember that India fought bravely as the world’s number one ranked side should in alien conditions, and the exploits of two young batsmen – KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant – might just help freshen up our collective memories.
Before this last innings, Rahul had scored 150 runs in four and a half Test matches. It wasn’t enough, because going as per form earlier this summer he had been proclaimed the ‘next big thing in Indian cricket’. You could just feel how that moniker had added pressure on his shoulders, and he looked a different batsman in tough conditions wherein he was playing Test cricket for the first time.
Alternately, Pant came in as the big hope for the future. Like in Rahul’s case, there is no dearth of talent in him. It just needs to come to fruition as ability on the field, both from the bat and the gloves behind wickets. He had started well in Nottingham – not many can forget that second-ball six – but faded away in Southampton under the pressure of staying at the wicket and playing his natural game.
Through various phases in this series, both Rahul and Pant – like other Indian batsmen barring Virat Kohli – have appeared shackled in chains of their own making. During this 204-run partnership on the very last day of this series, at least these two batsmen broke free and showed us a glimpse of what could have been for this Indian team if the batting had clicked.
• Responsibility – With 593 runs in this series, Kohli did more than his part. It was significant that he got out for a golden duck in the last innings of this series, because it was time for other batsmen to stand up and be counted. Only the score read 58-3, and it was down to Rahul to take on the anchoring role if India were to make a match of it. In the last two Tests, the opener had looked solid but he didn’t score many runs for he retreated into his shell and cut down on playing shots. That hampered his confidence and marred his strike-rate as well as cut down on the team’s chances of scoring a good total. Despite Kohli getting out, Rahul continued playing his shots and helped anchor the innings with Ajinkya Rahane in the morning session of day five.
• Playing the situation – One of the key reasons that India lost the series was because they let slip advantageous situations, and allowed England to come back into the game. Chasing low totals in Birmingham and Southampton, they really ought to have won those matches. But not enough batsmen played the situation and supported Kohli when he was going great guns. Arguably, Rahul corrected this wrong in his partnership with Pant as he raised visions of an improbable win. As Pant attacked the bowling relentlessly, Rahul took on a subdued role making sure that he stuck around and let the partnership flow seamlessly. In fact in the second session, as Pant raced to his hundred, Rahul scored only 34 runs in two hours. It was the need of that situation, avoiding any further loss of wickets, and you felt if only more of this had happened earlier.
• Fearless brand of cricket – Whenever Indian cricket fans look back at this series, they will remember the name Sam Curran. To be named man of the series by Kohli and Shastri, it underlined what the young all-rounder had achieved in his first full Test series. Runs from the English lower order, wherein Curran contributed majorly, were a key reason why they won this series. It makes for some wonderment – why was he able to make an impact when both Indian and English batsmen (again barring Kohli) failed?
The answer is in fearlessness, perhaps best attributed to youth. Curran came into this series with no baggage and zero weight of expectations. It wasn’t his job to score runs, just a contributing factor which proved invaluable. The underlying point herein is that he didn’t think too much ahead, instead just concentrated on scoring freely and with responsibility even in a maddening way.
India’s lower order, meanwhile, crumbled under its own weight of expectations. Playing with five batsmen, their all-rounders, wicket-keepers and lower order batsmen were expected to share the responsibility, and this ploy simply didn’t work. Pant’s struggle at Southampton, whilst not playing his natural game, is a case in point.
Perhaps with the series gone, he felt liberated at the Oval, or maybe there were simply no expectations that he could help save the Test. Naturally, it seemed like he had been given an automatic license to attack and launch into the bowling. It was an awe-inducing hundred, giving us a peek into his bright future. At the same time, it also made for a saddening thought – what if more Indian batsmen had been similarly brave?
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