Was it wise and bold to drop R Ashwin?
That question kept everyone occupied for a large part of the first session after Joe Root elected to bat. Ashwin has been in the form of his life and even picked up a six-for in the one-off County Championship match he played for Surrey during the three-week break after India lost the World Test Championship final in June against New Zealand.
In the WTC final, Ashwin had been part of the five-man bowling group that featured three fast bowlers and Ravindra Jadeja. Playing two spinners in overcast and rainy conditions in Southampton had been a questionable move in itself, but India believed that having both Ashwin and Jadeja, both capable batters, allowed them the best team balance. Not everyone was convinced though.
The question asked back then was: wouldn’t Shardul Thakur, who had shown he can bowl and bat during the epic victory in Brisbane in January, have been a better choice instead of one of the two spinners against New Zealand who had fielded an all-pace attack? That was answered today when India dropped Ashwin, retained Jadeja and played Thakur to make it a 4:1 bowling combination along with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj.
It was a gutsy and tactical move by India considering firstly that Trent Bridge has at least for over a decade favoured fast bowling. Another key factor might have been overcast conditions that are predicted to persist for the duration of the first Test. The question now was: could India’s four-pace battery execute the plans?
The answers started to arrive in the first over. Bumrah’s first four deliveries to Rory Burns swung away from the left-hander. With every delivery Bumrah was getting closer at forcing Burns to play the ball. Having got the opponent’s attention, Bumrah then rumbled his focus altogether by subtly tilting the seam inwards and trapping Burns lbw with a delivery that pitched on a length and sharply moved in. Bumrah had struggled to find rhythm in the WTC final, today he got in the groove the first over. Punching his right fist in the air, Bumrah let out a guttural scream – it set the tempo and mood for the rest of the day for the Indians.
Next over, first ball, Shami set the “oohs” going straight away with a beautiful away seamer which Dom Sibley was unaffected by as it was pitched on the fourth stump. Upright seam, pitching in and around the length area and wearing down the resolve of the batter with a thorough cross-examination of the outside edge – that has been Shami’s modus operandi in the recent years. Today was no different except he would end up fine tuning his length and line slightly from the second part of his first spell.
As per ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball numbers, in the seven-over first spell before lunch, 71% of Shami’s deliveries were pitched on good length or full. Post-lunch that increased to 77% with 46 out of 60 deliveries landing in those two areas. In fact, the percentage of full-length deliveries increased from 9% in the first session to 20% after lunch. The improvisation was necessary and created an immediate impact as Shami bagged three wickets.
Precision also was Bumrah’s key weapon as he attacked the stumps ball after ball with a menacing smile. Away swingers, in-dippers, and toe-crushing yorkers kept batters living in clear and present danger. Jos Buttler was so uncomfortable reading the Indian strike bowler’s hand and plans that at one point he went flashing hard at an outswinger away from the body. At the other end, Root did well not bury his head in his hands.
But Buttler had not played a first-class match since the second Test of the India tour in February. He had come into the Test on the back of playing a couple of matches in the Hundred. His mindset was all hit and miss today. That airy flash came off the 16th delivery Buttler had faced without opening his account. Two balls later Butter duly edged to Rishabh Pant.
Barring Root, England’s batters were all at sea against Burmah and Shami. England’s control percentage against Bumrah was 66.9 and versus Shami 72.7%. At the post-match briefing Shami laughed when asked why he was not getting wickets despite doing everything to get one in England. Between 2014 and lunch today, among overseas fast bowlers in England, Shami and Bumrah created the highest number of false shots per wicket in England at 18.96 18.87 respectively. After lunch, both bowlers got three wickets each, with Shami including 14 false shots and Bumrah 28.
Overall India forced Root and his men to play: 115 out of 390 balls. Bharat Arun, the Indian bowling coach, would be a happy man considering Siraj and Thakur, bowling for the first time with a Dukes in a Test match in England, were not overwhelmed or distracted by the moving ball. Talking to Sky Sports at stumps, Thakur said that while it was difficult to adjust to the changing conditions throughout the day as the sun and clouds exchanged positions, the key was to work out the length and line and stick to that considering the ball was not moving so much in the air. Shami validated that, saying the ball was actually gripping the surface at times.
Thakur does not have the pace, but he can move the ball in the air away from the bat effortlessly. He did that consistently to lure the batters into going for shots as Virat Kohli left the extra cover pocket vacant. Thakur would eventually shift to straighter lines – that resulted him trapping Root with a fullish delivery that the England captain was totally caught off guard playing.
Siraj had done the same thing just before lunch when he twice broke through Zak Crawley’s defence in one over by seaming the ball into the pads – both were reviewed by Kohli and the second appeal was upheld by the TV umpire.
Indian team management has suffered grievous self-inflicted wounds in the past with questionable team selections outside India: think Lord’s 2018 or the first two Tests of the 2017-18 tour of South Africa when they dropped Ajinkya Rahane, and event the WTC final in overcast conditions. Today their reading of the conditions and the pitch paid off as the pace quartet dominated England.
India also ticked another longstanding issue overseas: wrapping up the lower order quickly after doing the hard work against specialist batters. It was a key reason India failed in 2018 when England’s lower order bounced back in the first Test at Edgbaston and then in the fourth at the Ageas Bowl.
Today, though, India’s four fast men were in no mood to cede the advantage. They were persistent and relentless.