India are notoriously slow starters in Test series and when the first ball was bowled at Trent Bridge it was easy to assume this would again be the case. Most of the players may have been in the UK since the start of June but they have seen very little action since the World Test Championship final – some travelled, some took breaks from the grind in parks and restaurants and football matches – and with only one practice game, they should have been rusty. Except, they were switched on.
England were even more underprepared than the visiting team and it showed. What was especially critical was the clarity of one team when it came to selection and balance, compared to the other, and India came out comfortably on top.
To leave out Ravichandran Ashwin, arguably the best spinner in the world, after he had shown glimpses of beautiful bowling in the final of the World Test Championship, and then similar rhythm turning out for Surrey while his mates were posting photos in cafes and parks as they chilled out, was a big call.
But the captain, Virat Kohli, and Ravi Shastri, the head coach, were not thinking about one player. Rather they were plotting how to win the first Test at a ground where seamers of all kinds are always in business.
Enter Ravindra Jadeja. Before he played for India, Jadeja had two first-class triple-centuries to his name. For this reason alone, expectations of his batting were sky high and he was often ridiculed when he did not come good. But on Indian pitches his bowling was deadly. He got through overs in lightning quick time and when he was not blasting batsmen out with lethal straight balls he was bowling dry overs, giving nothing away. Add his fielding and there was a strong case for his name being the first on the team sheet.
In his home state of Gujarat, in his city of Rajkot, this was an unusual specimen. Playing on pitches that were either rank turners or complete roads, based on the kind of result his team needed, Jadeja evolved into a player who could be all things for all people.
Jadeja grew up poor, in a one-room home – his mother was a nurse and his father a security guard. His mother, a pillar of strength, died in a kitchen accident in 2005. But, while he grew up in poverty, there was clearly no shortage of pride. Jadeja is a Rajput by birth. Rajput literally means son of a king and they are believed to be descendants of warriors, which is why he celebrates batting milestones with the rapier celebration using his bat.
As a kid he was always scrawny, although as he grew there was the realisation that he was actually sinewy, muscular and powerful. Jadeja played the first Test as the premier all-rounder in the India team, not as the lone spinner, or as the person who kept Ashwin out. And, when the final day’s play was rained off, the way the match was set up, the position India were in, it would be fair to say the aggressive selection gambit from the think tank had paid off.
What this did was put down a marker. When the action moves to Lord’s, India will know that they have a combination that works.
And, to help matters, they have Ashwin in reserve. With the slope at Lord’s and the possibility of better weather and a pitch that has a tendency to flatten out, India can think about bringing Ashwin into play. Most critically, England’s reliance on Joe Root means that Ashwin will have earned his wages even if he just dismisses the opposition captain early. In most series he has played, Ashwin has targeted the best batsman, coming up with specific plans, keeping secondary plans under his belt and generally working them over, and making life as difficult as possible out in the middle.
If India do make a change – and predicting what combination Kohli will pick is generally a fool’s errand – Shardul Thakur could make way for Ashwin. Any which way, it is difficult to see Jadeja being left out, even if he failed to pick up a single wicket in Nottingham.
The quick turnaround between Tests will also favour India, who are looking to keep the pressure on England. In the course of a five-Test series, the shock and awe of one outstanding performance or a collapse in one bad session rarely separates the teams. The better team will prevail, weather permitting, and man for man India have the edge.
One of the reasons India have struggled in England in the past is overcoming the challenge of getting the balance of the playing XI right. India have not had a seam-bowling all-rounder who could do the job consistently and this often meant they went into battle with the premier fast bowlers having to do too much, or one batsman light.
In their latest iteration, India are attempting to remedy this by playing Jadeja as a batting all-rounder. And he should know a thing or two about balance. After all, when he is not playing cricket and is back home, Jadeja spends his time astride Ganga or Kesar, his horses, with not a saddle or stirrup in sight.