Reluctant Executioner Does The Trick At Lord’s

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Coming of age Team India celebrates taking a wicket in the Test match against England at Lord’s. Photo: AFP

His mind kept telling him to pitch the ball somewhere in the full length area. His captain kept telling him to pitch it short. The man who played the executioner when Team India scripted history was somewhat confused and nearly gave it all away — but one ball and one vital wicket changed his and the team’s luck on the fifth morning of the second Investec Test played on the greenest Lord’s wicket in several years. A bowler riddled with self-doubt was supposed to be the team’s man of the moment.

The man in question? ‘Lambu’ Ishant Sharma, the mercurial South Patel Nagar, New Delhi lad, who can be devastating one day and infuriatingly ordinary on the other. As he ran in to bowl the last over before lunch on the final day, the mood in South Patel Nagar fluctuated from the nervous to the delirious the moment southpaw Moeen Ali, a stodgy customer at the crease till then, tried to fend off a flier, only to provide short leg with the dolliest of dollies. Ishant had gone for the jugular, and Ali’s departure triggered utterly unwarranted panic in the English camp, which played him as if he was another Mitchell Johnson, and the match was over 55 minutes into the afternoon session!

This has to be among the most ordinary of English sides ever, but let that not take away anything from the Indians who displayed hitherto unseen aplomb and rare body language and attitude to emerge winners. For Dhoni and his team, the victory signified more than just a break-free moment. It has, perhaps, taught them the importance of self-belief as well.

Ishant, of course, was not even born when India last won a Test match at Lord’s. That was 28 years ago — 10 June 1986 to be precise. Only four of this team were born then, but none of them is old enough to recall anything of that famous win in which the magnificent Dilip Vengsarkar scored a classic hundred. Some of the leading lights of that victory, led by the redoubtable Kapil Dev, were there to witness what may not have been a very distinguished game of cricket but was riveting nevertheless. Sometimes the absence of stars does it for you — the more fancied ones like Virat Kohli have had a relatively modest run thus far, while the likes of Murali Vijay, ‘Sir’ Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have excelled at different moments in time.

But all this may not have happened if Ajinkya Rahane had not scored a truly first rate hundred on Day One. When England won the toss and put India in to bat on the first morning, they had the best of conditions. The wicket was green and lively and the weather overcast for most of the day. England also began well, only to run into an inspired and determined Rahane, who may not yet have the trappings of a star but is unobtrusively efficient and resourceful. It was largely because of him that Team India didn’t panic on the first morning. Thanks to Rahane, India’s first innings score of 295 was about 50 runs above par.

The build-up to the game was overshadowed by a row between James Anderson and Ravindra Jadeja that began during the previous Test — each player was reported to the game’s governing body by the other team. Neither was too fazed by the extra attention, but it was the cocksure Jadeja who rode out rare boos from the Lord’s crowd to swing the game in India’s favour. On the fourth day, India were wobbling at 203-6 when Jadeja came to the crease. He played a high-risk, aggressive innings of 68 off 57 balls to demoralise England. He also took the final wicket of the game, running out the last English batsman, who was, of course, James Anderson.

The Indian coach, Duncan Fletcher, may have his share of powerful detractors, but Lord’s proved that he remains one of cricket’s great observers. He also knows a thing or two about India’s current opponents, having successfully coached England for seven years in the 2000s. The tactic that ultimately won India the game — when Ishant peppered England’s middle order with short balls in the second innings — had all the hallmarks of Fletcher’s instruction. During the Ashes in Australia earlier this year, England repeatedly wilted when Australia’s Mitchell Johnson attacked them with short balls into the body. Sharma’s adoption of Johnson’s tactics worked wonders, triggering a batting collapse that saw England fall from 198-5 to 223 all out on the final afternoon.

Ishant’s is a temperamental talent, who infuriates as often as he inspires. Despite his fast-bowler physique and a lion’s mane of hair, he often seems lacking in self-confidence. He also bowls too many loose deliveries. Lord’s, however, saw an arrogant Ishant, happy to get in the faces of the batsmen and show some fury. He went wicketless in the first innings, overshadowed by the persevering and fast-maturing Bhuvneshwar, but, after removing Ian Bell with a peach of a ball in the second, he took six more wickets to record his Test best return of 7-74.

The last time India toured England, in 2011, it was an unmitigated disaster. A more talented team than the current tourists were soundly beaten in all four Tests. Having played an Indian Premier League season and a World Cup backto- back before the tour, half of the team was exhausted. They didn’t have time to play more than one warm-up game, so nobody got acclimatised to the unfamiliar English conditions. When players inevitably succumbed to injuries, they called up half-fit replacements. Watching the team on the field, an English critic quipped, “India’s body language is desperate. If this were a film, they’d be played by William H Macy.”

But all that has changed on this tour. The team has thus far looked fit, motivated, and unified. Contributions are being made all down the order — a sign of a successful team. The Bhuvneshwars and the Jadejas signify the strong aspirational levels of the middle class that dominates the Indian game now. Instead of waiting for one or two superstars to keep bailing them out, this team has a wealth of unassuming talent exemplified most vividly by ‘Bhuvi’, the unlikely hero from unfancied Meerut, known more for its scissors and crime-rate than producing top-class talent.

The 24-year-old son of a cop who owes much of his cricketing career to the sacrifices his Delhi-based sister made, represents the strong and resilient face of Team India. His emergence along with the likes of Mohammad Shami and Rahane will form a crucial sub-text in the future. For the time being, however, even as the team exults in the glory of the moment, it will do well to remember that there are three more Tests to go and even England, as dispirited and pedestrian a side as any, could get their act together and recover from the pits they find themselves in. India, on the other hand, has been showing signs of being hungry for success, with Kohli and Pujara just too good to keep failing consistently.

Before the Test began and even during the course of it, MSD’s critics were numerous and vociferous; this one victory does change a few things though, even when Dhoni himself knows only too well that the critics will be shrill the moment he and his team trip from their present high pedestal: a victory at Lord’s is always a special one, having its own unique snob value. A young team has indeed come of age.

pradyot@tehelka.com

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