As it turned out, the end justified the means.
India’s decision-making in the lead-up to and for large parts of The Oval Test seemed questionable, yet it was Virat Kohli and his men who had the last laugh, conquering the English capital for the second time in under a month to grab a significant advantage heading into the final Test in Manchester later this week.
Much of the consternation revolved around the continued cold shoulder to R. Ashwin, arguably the finest spinner in Test cricket today, on a surface that has proved a spinner’s ally inasmuch as any track in England can. The Oval isn’t renowned for pace and bounce, or for prodigious lateral movement. If anything, as this game too testified, the pitch flattens out the deeper you go into the Test, and inherent dryness brings spin into play on the final day.
Ashwin ought to have been a shoo-in once it was clear India would be without their two senior pacers, Ishant Sharma (most likely dropped, though there is no official word) and Mohammed Shami (nursing a niggle). After all, the office does have 413 Test wickets, and England boast three left-handers in their top seven. Instead, Kohli stuck to his templated four-one (four quicks, the lone spinner in Ravindra Jadeja) formula. Thus, Umesh Yadav returned for his first Test in nine months, Shardul Thakur was brought back after missing the two previous matches. Mistake No. 1, we thundered.
When Joe Root won the toss and stuck India in on the first morning, the sight of Jadeja striding in at No. 5 sent ripples of shock through the cricketing constellation. What was he doing at that number? Where was Ajinkya Rahane, the vice-captain, the designated three-down batsman? If the under-performing Rahane was so short on confidence that he needed to be ‘shielded,’ wouldn’t it have been more prudent to have benched him? Tut-tut, we knowingly sniggered, perhaps unwilling to buy the theory that India wanted a left-hander at that number.
Well, guess what? Victory by a commanding 157 runs. A magnificent victory on its own, made extra special by the circumstances in which it came – after a crushing innings hammering in the previous Test, after slumping to 122 for seven on day one of this encounter, and after losing Ravi Shastri (COVID-positive) and core members of the support group B. Arun (bowling coach), R. Sridhar (fielding coach) and Nitin Patel (physio), for the last two days of the contest.
It was a contest, let’s have no doubts. India were pushed, cornered, pegged back. England threw roundhouse punches, thundering upper-cuts and power-packed hooks, but like Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky series, India rode the blows with aplomb. They bled, they were knocked down, their bodies and egos were bruised, but they found a way to get themselves off the floor again. And start landing punches of their own. Exploratory, middling punches to start with, gradually building to a crescendo of aggression and muscle and brain and brawn, a flurry that England was unprepared for and ill-equipped to stave off.
As far as collective efforts go, this was a complete performance. Rohit Sharma was the designated Player of the Match for his first overseas hundred, and deservedly so because it came in the second innings which India started 99 in the red. But it could so easily have been Thakur, the comeback kid who blazed to a 31-ball half-century on the first afternoon that hauled India to 191, who slammed an equally authoritative fifty on the fourth afternoon to propel the lead beyond 300, who provided the first breakthrough in England’s second innings after the openers had pieced together 100 on the final morning and, most crucially, accounted for the prickly Joe Root with tea imminent.
It could have been Jasprit Bumrah, the leader of the pace pack who, at the first hint of reverse-swing this series, turned in a memorable demonstration of pace, intent and accuracy to pluck out the poles of Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow in the space of five deliveries. Along the way, he became the fastest Indian fast bowler to the 100-wicket mark (24 Tests). And, it could have been Umesh too, who took three wickets in each innings to celebrate a wonderful return that catapulted the Indians to their first victory at The Oval in 50 years.
There were other contributors too. K.L. Rahul, unexpectedly thrown a lifeline at the start of the series following injuries to Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal, has re-embraced Test cricket with the gravity it demands. He reiterated his commitment to the longer format with another wonderful hand in the second innings, which Cheteshwar Pujara extended his return to run-scoring ways with another second-innings contribution, a flowing 61 that helped build on the 83-run opening-wicket stand.
Kohli didn’t have a shabby game himself, chipping in with 50 and 44. He is still without a Test century since November 2019, he is still a long way away from his best. But he has found a way to conquer his inner demons for long enough periods to put meaningful runs on the board. Rishabh Pant shrugged off a string of low scores and disappointing modes of dismissal to put his head down and associate with Thakur in an entertaining century stand on the penultimate day. And Jadeja was, well, Jadeja. He didn’t look out of place at the unfamiliar No. 5 position even if he didn’t make many runs (surely, this experiment must not continue at Old Trafford) and did what was expected of him on the last day, targeting the rough from the bowlers’ footmarks, picking up two wickets, bowling long spells and giving nothing away.
Even the substitutes played their part, Agarwal’s alacrity and accuracy resulting in Dawid Malan’s run out and Suryakumar Yadav snaffling Moeen Ali at short-leg. The sum of the parts was significantly more than the whole, which is why India are in a position to eye a first series win in England since 2007.
So, the end justifies the means. Or do they? Perhaps, in light of what’s just happened, that discussion is best left for another day.