The three lions on the English shirt could not have found a better turf than the "shirtfront" of a pitch, at least till the last few sessions the team encountered in the home terrain of the newest IPL franchise – Gujarat Lions – at Rajkot. The lion prowled and snarled with suddenly sharpened claws at the cagey Indians in the fourth innings, and almost devoured its slumbering prey. In the bargain, it also had the mortification of burying the "Bangla tigers’ assault” ever so quickly.
England scripted their remarkable story with cubs like Haseeb and Rashid, while the accomplished seniors like Cook, Root, Stokes and Ali paved the path with tons in crucial and differing circumstances of the match. By nearly pulling the rug from under the Indians’ feet, the English caused a tremor of an average Richter scale in a place not alien to earthquakes!
The prophet-like doom and gloom merchants, who predicted first blood to India, found themselves licking their wounds courtesy the Brit bulldog spirit. Maybe the SCA, at Rajkot, did not want to earn the ire of ICC in its debut game, leaving the preparation of the 22-yard strip or its lack of, to the elements. The beauty of Test cricket – which endures the misery of a microscopic referendum every time it gets staged – shone bright at Rajkot amidst the short attention spans and fast-paced yet shallow preferences of the present day fan.
Bereft of the old fashioned seductive allure, which only Test match cricket can recreate, the already impatient audiences will feel sorely shortchanged. An enormous challenge it is, then, to get the condition of the pitch right – to satiate both the commoner and the discerning, to flock in and be keen. Oh, for such a formula!
After the initial bout in Rajkot, the English would feel resurgent in their ranks, having ticked almost all the boxes. The original ship-builders and islanders, sensing calmer waters, now troop to Vizag, with a typical chin up attitude: gung-ho and combative. The coastal town, renowned for its ship-building prowess, may well pose another test, should its less benevolent curator, compared to Rajkot, have a crumbling deck for Captain Cook and his well-oiled engine room to combat.
The dire threat of a boomerang still lingers as the English spinners held their own in Rajkot. The evidence of a "dry as a bone" deck was seen in the last ODI that Vizag staged, versus the Kiwis. Amit Mishra, the fifth bowler, with his recent "five-for" in that one-dayer – a pleasant memory to delve in – will be raring to make amends and earn his lost stripe. To say the spinners would be licking their lips in earnest on such tracks is an understatement.
On a positive note, one couldn't be any happier for Murali Vijay, whom yours truly has seen progress from his fledgeling days as a "long-haired, happy go lucky" also-ran in the club circuit of Chennai, right from the turn of the millennium. First memories (green till date) of Vijay are from the time when he crunched a tall and elegant backfoot cover drive, with high left elbow and a straight bat in a match at Secunderabad Gymkhana in late 2006, his debut season.
Even then I thought that with honest hard yards and a tiny shift in attitude, he would go places. How right I feel now, vindicated with my observations! His meteoric growth was scripted against the visiting Aussies in early 2013, and he has not looked back since.
At 32, Vijay is at the top of his batting prowess: reaping the rewards of relentless work in the nets, aside from having a fit body honed by hours in the gym. The proof of that was seen in his display of calm concentration over a long dig after fielding for nearly two days.
Vijay's technique outside the off stump and ability to eschew flashy strokeplay, combined with his selective and aggressive shot-making, has fetched him cartloads of runs in diverse conditions – like in seaming England and in bouncy Australia. He may have been guilty of wearing a T20 shirt in the oldest format on several occasions in the past, but not anymore.
Vijay's pugnacious metamorphosis from a "larrikin" lad was slightly delayed; the sparks were visible even in the ton he peeled in the company of Sachin Tendulkar in Bangalore in late 2008 versus the Aussies. Nevertheless, his stoic application in his second coming has been a revelation, and fulfilling for the team too – even as an enforced musical chair syndrome plagues its opening combination, pressurising the middle-order.
Virat Kohli, unlike Ravi Ashwin (both seasoned pros who don’t possess a good record versus the old enemy), did his reputation no harm by enabling the team to steadier shores with a laboured, hard-nosed second innings, where he proved he could play for a draw too. A loss at Rajkot was averted as the skipper dug deep and sent the team a message that playing fourth on a wearing pitch requires a different set of skills.
Ashwin, the ‘sheikh of tweak’, along with the rest of the bowling unit, would do well to be consistent, and at times adopt "malleable tactics" to get 20 wickets. The absence of that was glaring in the way they allowed Moeen Ali to a Test match ton, without testing their short pitched arsenal on him. Ali may well have been shaken had the Indians peppered him more early in his innings. Sadly that was not to be, for the saddest words of pen and tongue are “might have been”!
Ashwin, not under pressure, other than that of replicating his own tall and illustrious standards, certainly would have traded his "gold-dust-like precious runs” for wickets in Rajkot. Needless to say, the next match is another test of character for him.
It will be a buoyed up English side that will rock up at Vizag, locking horns with a chastened India. The hosts will look for a helpful pitch to salvage their pride and dent the resurgent English confidence with cunning and spotless execution of their plans.
In Rajkot they saw their best-laid plans obliterated by a mixture of dogged English tenacity, coupled with their own over-reliance on Ashwin. So Kohli will be hoping that the weather gods relent, keeping the seasonal rains at bay and allowing the coastal town to stage a full Test match, thereby joining a list of new international Test match venues.