That’s what makes Test cricket so special…
Growing up in the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s, my cricketing heroes were quite a few. Rahul Dravid was obviously the standout, but then there was Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralidharan, Brian Lara, Shaun Pollock and Inzamam ul Haq to name a few. T20 cricket hadn’t yet been conceptualized and anything more than a run a ball to chase in a 50 overs match seemed almost an impossible task.
The rule that was laid down upon us by our local club cricket coaches was that you had to do ten laps of the ground if you played an aerial shot. God forbid if you got out to it in a match. This was pretty much the foundation all the above-mentioned players were brought up with as well. Hence, it is no surprise that even in the world of T20, I would much rather keep myself glued to watching a test match whenever I get the opportunity.
The example of the recently concluded England versus India test at the Oval is the perfect reason why test cricket is so special. While the test match was on, Ajaz Patel was busy trying to get a second-string New Zealand team to a win against Bangladesh in a T20I, Janemann Malan raced to a third ODI hundred while Faf du Plessis completed a remarkable comeback from concussion with a smashing hundred in the Caribbean Premier League.
Are the above instances entertaining? Yes, definitely. Does it challenge a player like one gets challenged over a five-day period? No. Let’s look at how the test match panned out amidst all the madness.
Joe Root won the toss and put India into bat. After their horror show of 78 all out in the previous test, there was always going to be nerves among the Indians coming into bat under somewhat helpful conditions. While I was livid at the fact that Ravichandran Ashwin was still not a part of the Indian XI, I was happy that I could wrap up work and still watch a decent part of the game on all of the days.
Day ONE almost saw a repeat of the 78 all out from India. On helpful conditions for swing bowling, it was not the master but the ever reliable and comeback man, Chris Woakes, who wreaked havoc by generating more bounce and swing than any other bowler. India was three down for next to nothing and it required a grind from Kohli and a swashbuckling lower order 50 from Shardul Thakur to get India to a respectable 191. Had it not been for Thakur’s counterattacking 57 at number 8, we might well have been staring at another innings defeat already. This innings not only gave us respectability but also allowed our bowlers to come in and knock over three English wickets, including that of the big fish Root, before close of play on day one. Based on proceedings, one would say – marginal advantage to England.
Day TWO saw two quick wickets fall in the first session, including that of the nightwatchman, but the pitch was becoming easier to bat on as compared to what India found. At five down for 62, India did have a chance to ride home the advantage, but a determined 80 from local boy Ollie Pope, valuable runs from Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali and a half-century by Woakes meant that India conceded a 99 run first innings lead. The lead and India’s batting failures meant that India were on the backfoot. However, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul started off on the right foot by putting on an unbeaten 43 run stand to end proceedings on day two. India still trailed by 56 runs. Advantage, still England.
Day THREE, without doubt was going to be the best day for batting. Thankfully, the Indian batsmen obliged. Rahul and Rohit dug in and added another 40 odd runs before a peach from Anderson got the better off Rahul. The ever so dogged Cheteshwar Pujara joined Rohit and managed to outscore the Hitman. Surprise, surprise! India’s number three was scoring at a strike rate of over 70 while the three-time ODI double centurion was playing a knock even Geoffrey Boycott would be proud of. Rohit got to his maiden overseas hundred, and what a hundred it was! He wore England’s bowlers out and made sure he capitalized on loose balls. Classic test cricket. Pujara scored another half century, but their 153-run stand meant that India was slowly clawing back into the test match. At the end of day three, India was ahead by 171 and the stage was set for a Kohli masterclass.
Early into day FOUR, England nipped out Ravindra Jadeja while Ajinkya Rahane started trending on twitter after yet another failure. As England looked to get their way back into the game, Kohli got out having made yet another valuable contribution, but the hundred continued to elude him. It was down to showman Pant and first innings hero Thakur to get India to respectability once again. They did not disappoint. Pant kept his madness in the locker, except for one outrageous attempt at a reverse sweep, while Thakur continued to make batting look ridiculously easy on that wicket. They added a 100 runs, with Thakur perishing on 60. Pant too left two runs later and India’s lead stood at 315. England’s bowlers were exhausted by then and the 39-year-old Jimmy Anderson ended up bowling 33 overs on a flat pitch. The tail chipped in too. Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah scored 49 runs between them to frustrate England further, eventually setting a target of 368. What looked like England’s test match at the end of day two and was fairly balanced at the end of day three, suddenly looked in favor of India close to the end of day four. However, the pitch was still flat, and England’s openers put on 77 runs at the end of day four, leaving the possibility of all three results, still wide open.
Day FIVE saw Rory Burns get to his 50 before the man with the golden arm, Thakur, got him with the team score exactly at 100. A horrible mix up saw Malan being run out soon after. Hameed was going strong, and the skipper Joe Root was in no mood to let things slip. Just when things started meandering, Jasprit Bumrah produced a spell like no other. His six over spell conceded only six runs and, in the process, he castled Ollie Pope with sheer pace and nailed Bairstow with a yorker, that he is renowned for in white ball cricket. Moeen gave away his wicket softly but Root was still there. In Woakes, he found able support as they looked to delay the inevitable. Just when it looked like things were starting to settle down again for England, Thakur got Root to drag an innocuous delivery onto his stumps. The crowd roared; the Indian players roared. This was the second biggest moment of the day after the Bumrah spell. The tail did wag a bit but Umesh Yadav, as he so often does on flat Indian pitches, cleaned out the tail with his pace and aggression.
The result – an Indian victory. Anybody who is a fan of limited overs cricket only might have judged things at the end of one of the days’ play and picked a winner. Such is test cricket that, you can never tell which way the result is going when two evenly matched teams play. England dominated conditions which suited them on day one – swing, seam and bounce. India came back and dominated conditions on day five – flat, not quite coming on to the bat and gripping somewhat. In between, the roller coaster ride continued as one team reached a high, only to go into a low in the next session.
Yes, T20 cricket is 3 hours of pure entertainment. On eight occasions out of ten, the bowlers get thrashed, and the batsmen entertain crowds with fours and sixes. There is definitely skill required in limited overs cricket. But test cricket not only requires skill, but also resolve. Only the best can have their backs against the wall and still come back strong against it. That is what India showed during the course of these five days.
While I am still miffed at the fact that Ashwin did not play, I cannot deny the fact that this match gave me more thrill than an entire IPL tournament. For you can remember the chain of events of this match for a long time to come but you can’t remember the millions of fours and sixes hit across a 74-game tournament. And it is for contests like these, that all cricket lovers should unequivocally say, “Long live Test cricket!”
©Cricket World 2021