The build-up to the second Test between England and India at Lord’s had been surrounded with talks of whether India would play a second spinner in the line-up.
After all, Ravichandran Ashwin had made the England batsmen sing to his tune in the first Test at Edgbaston while the ongoing heat wave in the UK was showing no signs of relenting.
Come the first day at Lord’s, the heavens opened up over London as the heat wave made way for the customary English summer rains.
That allowed both captains to keep their cards close to their chests when it came to naming the playing XIs for the Test.
The second day, which was originally forecast to be the best day weather-wise, brought with it some more rains as a delayed start ensued.
Despite the onset of the rains, India skipper Virat Kohli chose to go with two spinners with Kuldeep Yadav replacing pacer Umesh Yadav in the playing XI.
What followed was the stuff of nightmares for the visitors as once again, Kohli’s luck deserted him at the toss with Joe Root having no hesitation in having a bowl first in overcast conditions.
The stage had been set for one of Lord’s favourite performers James Anderson.
With the skies wearing a ominous grey look and a bright red Duke ball in hand, there is perhaps no graver sight for a batsman in England than to see Anderson steaming up the slope at the iconic cricket ground.
He got to work straight away as he brought the packed house at Lord’s to its feet with only the fifth delivery of the day.
A flabbergasted Murali Vijay could only look on in disbelief as a gem of a late out-swinger took out his off-stump.
The tone had been set for what was to follow as India’s worst fears were about to come true.
Kohli had been at pains to mention that the shortcomings displayed by India’s batsmen at Edgbaston had been more on the ‘mental’ side rather than technical.
Based on the 35 odd overs that were bowled on Friday, the Indian skipper could very well have been bluffing rather than being serious.
For England’s pacers were absolutely unrelenting as they kept pegging away at the ever-dangerous line just outside off-stump which has been Anderson’s bread and butter since he was a toddler.
The techniques of the batsmen, including Kohli’s himself, were cruelly exposed as edges kept flying towards the slip cordon.
England kept landing the ball in the sweet spot and India’s batsman kept erring with each passing swipe.
Cheteshwar Pujara resisted the English attack briefly on his Test return but his run-out woes came back to haunt him and render his 25-ball stay at the crease effectively meaningless.
Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane too put up a brief resistance before being sucked in towards poking at inviting deliveries outside the off stump. They took the bait and paid the ultimate price.
That Ashwin ended up as the top-scorer tells you all you need to know about the sorry state that is India’s batting.
The mantra for England’s pacers had been simple – keep pegging away at the off-stump and let India’s technical shortcomings rear its ugly head.
Now, after effectively just a session and a half of actual play in the Test, India are staring down the barrel and have been left with a mammoth mountain to climb.
To add insult to their injury, they will now have the services of just two specialist pacers and Hardik Pandya on a pitch where England spinner Adil Rashid could very well have stayed back at Yorkshire without his absence even registering.
It was a perfect storm and a dash of James Anderson that hit India with full force on Friday.
The script will be complete on Saturday should the sun come out and give England the perfect batting conditions to further deepen India’s misery.
The foremost of them would have been the inability of the rest of the India batting line-up to stand up to the task. Of the 446 total runs scored by India in the two innings at Edgbaston, Kohli himself had accounted for 200 of them.
Only one other India batsman in Hardik Pandya (52) managed to surpass a combined 50 runs in both innings. While the collective failure of the batting unit stood out like a sore thumb, the below-par performances of Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay were the major causes for India’s downfall.
The two, especially Rahane, have been India’s stalwarts many a time on their overseas sojourns in recent years. Rahane, in particular, has been the rock on which many of India’s rare overseas triumphs have been built upon.
However, the Mumbai batsman has hit a lean patch of form never previously seen in his career. The right-hander was dismissed for scores of 15 and two in the two innings at Edgbaston. More than the quantity of Rahane’s runs, it was the manner of his dismissals which left much to be desired.
In the first innings, he failed to deal with the extra bounce generated by England all-rounder Ben Stokes as he stabbed a rising delivery straight into the hands of third slip. In the second, he chased a rank short-pitched delivery way outside off-stump only to under-edge it into the wicketkeeper’s hands.
To see a batsman who is generally considered to be India’s most dependable overseas Test batsman get dismissed in such fashion raises plenty of eyebrows.
Those were the signs of a batsman who is clearly struggling with confidence and self-belief at the moment. His dismissal for just two in the second innings means that the Indian stalwart has now gone 11 innings without registering a single half-century.
The India vice-captain has been on a downward spiral ever since his innings of 188 against New Zealand in Indore during October 2016.
Since then, he has scored only 701 runs in 28 innings at a measly average of 26.96. No matter how much you want to sugarcoat those figures, they are not the numbers one would expect from a batsman of Rahane’s talents.
In this period, the only ton that the 30-year-old registered came against Sri Lanka at Colombo last year. In fact, his record gets even worse after that knock of 133, with his next 11 innings fetching only 118 runs at an average of just 10.72.
For a man who used to average more than 50 until much of 2016, the downturn has been notable to say the least.
The right-hander’s confidence was at a new low after Sri Lanka’s tour of India in late 2017. In the three-match series, Rahane could only manage a pitiful 17 runs in five innings at an average less than the runs a single boundary fetches.
That he was then not picked for the first two Tests in India’s tour of South Africa earlier this year would not have done any favours to his already diminished confidence. Rahane could only watch from the sidelines even as limited-overs specialist Rohit Sharma was picked ahead of him.
When he did finally get his chance in the final Test at Johannesburg, the India middle-order batsman struck a vital 48 in the second innings as Virat Kohli’s men scripted a famous victory.
Quite simply, Rahane has been a vital cog in whatever overseas success India have garnered over the past four years or so. His notable lack of form currently does not bode well for the visitors in the remainder of the five-match series.
While Kohli currently appears like a man possessed on a single-minded mission to set right his record on English soil and continue his march towards greatness, India will still need another batsman to at least chip in with some handy contributions if they are to have any chance in the series.
They will hope that batsman is Rahane, for he has done it many times previously. Kohli will want his deputy to shoulder some of the batting responsibility and he will be hoping that the venue of the second Test can give Rahane the necessary boost in confidence he so desperately needs.
It was at Lord’s in 2014 that Rahane scored perhaps the best of his nine Test tons so far. His masterful 104 had been the catalyst for India’s thrilling 95-run win and Kohli and his men could do with more of the same this time as they seek to get back on level terms in the series.
Ahead of the start of the five-Test series against England, Virat Kohli and India were faced with a question – whether to line up with two specialist spinners or to stick with a four-man pace attack which included all-rounder Hardik Pandya.
In the end, Kohli opted to go with the latter as the overcast conditions and perhaps England’s own decision to go with a lone spinner in the form of Adil Rashid played on his mind.
At the end of the first-day’s play at Edgbaston, the Indian skipper would have been left wondering if he had missed a trick by not going in with two spinners.
It was not the four-man pace attack that got India the initial breakthrough on Wednesday. It was instead the off-spin of Ravichandran Ashwin that shattered Alastair Cook’s off-stump as early as the ninth over of England’s innings.
In that ripper of a delivery, Ashwin had made it clear that there was joy to be had for the spinners. The drift, turn and guile all seemed to be working for him as Cook fell the off-spinner for the eighth time in his career.
That was just the start for Ashwin. His delivery to trap Jos Buttler plumb in front of the wicket for a duck was further proof of the purchase available for spinners at Edgbaston.
By the time the day was winding down, Ashwin’s confidence was soaring as he brought out his ‘outswinger’ to dismiss Stuart Broad. Kohli and team India would have been mighty pleased with their day’s work after reducing England to 285-9. But in their minds, they would know that it could have been even better.
Had they played to their strengths and picked either Ravindra Jadeja or Kuldeep Yadav to go with Ashwin, the outcome of Wednesday could have been much different with the way England struggled against spin. Only Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow played Ashwin with any surety and even then the latter was lucky on a few occasions as the outside edge drifted just wide of the slip fielders.
Instead, India were stuck with Pandya as their fifth bowling option and the all-rounder failed to create any major impact. The 10 overs Pandya bowled fetched England 46 runs as he relieved the pressure created by the other bowlers on multiple occasions.
His bowling display on Wednesday meant India were bowling very much with a four-man bowling attack. While it might still not be too big a price to pay for the visitors yet, they could rue going in with only one spinner by the time the second innings comes around.
If the pitch continues to deteriorate under the influence of the ongoing heatwave, spinners could have an even greater role to play. England still have the luxury of turning to skipper Joe Root for some part-time off spinners if the situations so desires.
India, unfortunately, will not have that option with none of their batsmen being part-time spinners. As Root showed in Yorkshire’s Roses clash against Lancashire recently, he can be an effective option when the conditions are just right.
While it is too late for India now to change that aspect in the ongoing Test, they certainly now have some food for thought for the remaining four matches. England’s vulnerability against quality spinners remains based on Wednesday’s showing. Kohli and India could be better served by backing their strength for the rest of the series unless England put up a green minefield at the other four venues.