“The answer to your question will be, I feel, when Kuldeep Yadav takes four of five wickets tomorrow,” said a hopeful Ajinkya Rahane at the end of Day 2 of the Lord’s Test. He said it twice.
The question was bound to come up. India and England had read the conditions at Lord’s quite differently. England felt there would be more for the swing bowlers and stuffed their line up with four. India went in with two spinners in R Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav.
Even before the first over was bowled, it became apparent who was right. James Anderson was swinging the ball like he had a chip on it and could control via a remote.
As India’s wickets went down in a hurry after they were sent in to bat, their team selection came back into focus. In conditions which were ripe for seamers, India had two frontline spinners, two frontline pacers and Hardik Pandya. And as they bowled in the second innings, the decision to not have another pacer in the ranks hurt them.
India’s opening bowlers started off poor, but soon came into their own. The conditions weren’t as great as England enjoyed the previous day, but they still found enough to trouble Jennings and Cook. By the time the pair was out, to Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma respectively, in successive overs, India’s main pacers were already towards the end of their spells.
The need for a third frontline seamer was never more stark. India had decided to bring in Kuldeep for Umesh Yadav for this game at Lord’s, and despite seeing the conditions on the first day, which was washed out before the toss had even taken place, they decided to play with the left-arm wrist spinner.
England, on the other hand, picked Chris Woakes ahead of Moeen Ali. They had Adil Rashid in their line up, but didn’t need even one over from the spinner as they routed India for 107 runs in 35.2 overs.
Even at that stage, India would’ve kept hoping their call to take Kuldeep would not backfire. A little after 10 overs into the England innings at Lord’s, it did.
Kuldeep was brought on as India’s first change bowler. And England managed 11 runs off that over. Off his next, England got five. Two overs later, he was taken off and Shami brought back into the attack. Those four overs would ideally have seen India bowling another seamer. But with Kuldeep bowling, England could afford to see off Pandya at one end and take runs off the left-armer from the other.
That India had to get back Shami after such a brief spell of rest said everything. But it did the trick. With Lunch not far away, Shami bowled full tilt again. Immediately, you could see England were put out of their comfort zone. Shami had Ollie Pope beaten twice, and in the next over Pandya had him out LBW. Shami himself reaped rewards by getting rid of Root off what turned out to be the final ball of the first session.
Off the 24.4 balls bowled in the first session, Shami had bowled 8.4 overs, while Ishant and Pandya had split 12. Kuldeep had bowled 4. With the pacers bowling the most, it was no surprise that India enjoyed their best session with the ball.
As the match progressed, Shami and Ishant’s impact waned, which was no surprise. The two had had the heaviest workload and had bowled their backs off. Hardik, as he mentioned in the post-day press conference, was playing more of a defensive role, tempting the batsmen to make mistakes by bowling tight lines and lengths. It left India resting on their spinners for wickets. And on a pitch that offered close to nothing, they got zilch.
By the end of the day, the Indian spinners had bowled a total of 26 overs for 112 wicketless runs. That was more than what India had made in their first innings.
India’s ploy fell straight into England’s hands.
“I think the important thing was to try to get through certain spells,” Woakes said at the end of the day. “There were some really good ones – Shami kept running in – and we just saw each spell as something to tick off, and make it difficult for the Indian bowlers to keep coming back. There wasn’t a huge amount of turn there, so when the spinners were on we felt we’d done our job.”
It was also strange to see India place their hopes on Pandya as their third seamer. In Edgbaston, India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun had said that the lesser India needed Pandya to bowl, the better it would be for them. It was not a swipe at his abilities, more about the role India expected him to play. A fifth bowler who can be called upon only when things weren’t going the way of the other four. At Lord’s, Pandya was suddenly India’s first change bowler – one expected to take wickets, keep the pressure up and play the support role when needed.
He said his bowling role was to keep things tight and wait for England to make a mistake. But against a disciplined, well-planned batting pair, the punt was going to be a big risk.
“That’s my role when I bowl, I like to keep it tight and try to make sure that the batsman make mistakes, I don’t try much stuff,” Pandya said.
Pandya does offer something useful with the bat, but his numbers as a batsman in overseas conditions is far from impressive to say the least. With Kuldeep and Ashwin already in the squad, two players who can bat decently well, there was perhaps no need for India to go more conservative and keep Pandya in the line-up too. If they were indeed looking for a third seamer, Umesh Yadav or Shardul Thakur would have made a far bigger impact.
For a team that has long raised eyebrows with some strange team selections, the Kuldeep-Hardik punt just adds to the list. Hopefully, some right results come up soon.
Rahane, and team India, will rue the fact that the game hasn’t progressed as predicted. He will hope that his prayers now will be. Most of them will be for continuous rain over the next two days of the Test.