For India, First Test syndrome laid to rest

2014 Jul 15 by Suresh Menon

For the first time in years, India did not lose the first Test of an away series. But this flat track might come to haunt England should India, emboldened by their performance, come strongly at them in the rest of the series. I

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By Suresh Menon

Today’s cricketers are not as enamoured of playing at Lord’s as their predecessors were. For decades, Indians came to Lord’s to be impressed, to mutter platitudes about “learning to play” and then to be beaten. It changed in the 1970s, and one of the players responsible for that change, Sunil Gavaskar was probably the first Indian cricketer to publicly say he was unimpressed by Lord’s. For him, and for generations that followed, Lord’s is just another venue, and the romantics have overstated its grandeur.

Indians are happy to play at Lord’s, but then so are they in Sydney or Melbourne, or Kolkata or anywhere else. Rahul Dravid, the only batsman among India’s Great Triumvirate – Gavaskar, Tendulkar being the others – to have scored a century at Lord’s is a throwback to an earlier era but even he likes to keep the romantic Lord’s in perspective.

The second Test here is in the hands of Mick Hunt, head groundsman, suddenly under pressure to provide a track where a result – perhaps after tea on the final day – is assured. Television likes to have five days of play, and if that comes at the cost of a result that looks the most likely after the first day, a draw, as in Nottingham, then so be it.

It is not an attitude guaranteed to bring the fans rushing for a Test; one more sleeping beauty, and the India-England series might die a premature death. And so too might Test cricket itself – if the trend continues. Generations brought up on T20 and 50-over cricket aren’t excited by draws, especially in matches where not even three innings are not completed in five days as in the first Test.

This is not a call to produce results artificially, just to ensure that bowlers are given an equal chance, and that batsmen survive on skill rather than on the inability of the wicket to provide bounce or pace.

“When you are playing away, you expect to be given wickets that are the speciality of that country,” Mahendra Singh Dhoni said, expressing surprise at not getting a seamer’s track. “After all, when you come to India, you can expect spinning wickets.”

Yet, on their last tour, India were beaten on their spinning tracks by the English spinners. It would be ironic if India’s seamers made better use of possible seamers’ tracks in England.

When two teams which are in transition play each other, there is a tendency for them to do so with all the care of porcupines making love. England have just lost a series at home to Sri Lanka, and India’s recent away record has been poor . Both teams have lost the players who were responsible for their each getting to the No.1 spot in Test cricket.

Given an opportunity to start by putting India under pressure, England messed up. The Trent Bridge track drew the teeth of the bowlers (although it is useful to remember that the only bowler to claim five in an innings was Bhuvaneswar Kumar who ought to have been Man of the Match, as the embarrassed winner Jimmy Anderson said).

It meant that for the first time in years, India did not lose the first Test of an away series. But this flat track might come to haunt England should India, emboldened by their performance, come strongly at them in the rest of the series. In a five-Test series, a team can recover from an opening Test loss, but there is something to be said about getting an early blow in.

The first Test will be remembered for the two last-wicket partnerships, and the near-centuries from Andersen and Stuart Binny. But just three days’ rest (and 25 days of cricket in 42 days) means that the bowlers begin with a handicap. “If we end up bowling 60 overs every week,” Andersen said after the match, “then we are not going to get through the five Tests.”

India made over 850 runs in the Test without a significant contribution from their main batsman, Virat Kohli. They bowled out England once without their main spinner Ashwin. These are important pointers. The selection of Stuart Binny was much criticized. Yet, he played the crucial role in ensuring India didn’t have any unpleasant surprises on the final day. His reward might be the honour of carrying the drinks tray at Lord’s, but that is not unexpected.

This is being written on the day after the first Test, and if India feel they have had the better of the exchanges so far it is merely an acknowledgement of their historical drawbacks. The first Test syndrome may have been laid to rest.