Pataudi Trophy: India send strong message to Root and Co in series opener, but worries still persist
Although the first Test at Trent Bridge was marred by England's infamous rain, India dominated most of it, with the hosts forced to do the catching up. However, there are some warning signs too.
Despite being humbled by the Kiwis in the WTC final, India were installed as favourites by many experts for the five-Test series against England, considering the latter's poor form in 2021 (including a 0-1 loss against Williamson's men for the first time at home), their controversial rotation policy and inexperienced batting.
On top of that, their gun pacer Jofra Archer got knocked out of the 2021-22 calendar due to a recurring elbow injury. The hosts also entered the series without playing a single red ball game after their loss against the Kiwis two months earlier.
Just days before the first Test, Ben Stokes opted for a mental health break, weakening England's vulnerable batting line-up even more.
Although the series opener at Trent Bridge suffered due to England's infamous rain, India dominated most of the game, with the hosts forced to do the catching up. When the fifth day got washed out, India needed 157 runs more in their pursuit of 209, with nine wickets still in hand and the Trent Bridge surface showing few signs of danger for the batters.
While both teams missed an opportunity to start their WTC 2021-23 campaigns with a win, India would be feeling more comfortable heading into the second Test at Lord's.
KL Rahul puts a stop to India's opening headache
Things started on a bad note for the visitors, as they ended up losing regular openers Shubman Gill (shin injury) and Mayank Agarwal (concussion) before the series opener at Nottingham.
This forced the management to bring in KL Rahul, initially drafted as a middle-order option, as Rohit Sharma's opening partner.
It was a risky move, considering the Karnataka batsman's poor form during the 2018-19 tours of England, Australia and the West Indies, where he could manage only one ton in 12 games.
However, Rahul proved the critics wrong as his 214-ball 84 helped India recover from a sudden middle order collapse. After India slumped from 97-1 to 112-4, the opener kept his calm and along with Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja helped the visitors surpass England's first innings total of 183, after which lower order heroics resulted in a handy 95-run first innings lead.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the Rahul of 2018 and his Trent Bridge knock was the decisive footwork and solid defence. The Karnataka batsman played closer to his body with soft hands, backed by some solid timing, forcing the veteran duo of James Anderson and Stuart Broad to deliver juicy half volleys at times.
Bumrah rebounds after horrible World Test Championship final
One of the most talked about points in India's WTC final loss was premier pacer Bumrah going wicketless in both innings and the Kiwis making the most of his erratic line and length.
Despite criticism over the pacer's form, skipper Kohli stuck with his gun bowler and Bumrah didn't fail this time around.
He stamped India's authority in the very first over of the match by picking up England opener Rory Burns and had figures of 9-110 at the end of the rain-marred game. His aggression proved to be too much for England's lower order, as the home side collapsed from 211-5 to 303 all out in the second innings on a Trent Bridge surface that didn't have too many demons.
What could have been a daunting fourth innings task for Kohli's men due to Joe Root's knock of 109, ended up being a below par 209-run target.
Bumrah's heroics not only made him register his name on the Trent Bridge honours board for the second time in three years, he is also the top wicket-taker as of now, with four more games to go. The team management would be hoping the pacer remains fit and carries on the good work.
India's pace battery sends early warning to hosts
While Bumrah was no doubt the X-factor between the two teams in Nottingham, it would be unfair not to talk about India's new ball attack as a whole.
The team management made a few bold calls, dropping the experienced Ishant Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin, apart from going with Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj as Bumrah's partners.
Allrounder Ravindra Jadeja and medium pacer Shardul Thakur were the other two bowling options, adding depth to India's batting.
While Bumrah ran through the England batters, Shami's raw pace and deadly swing troubled the home side from the other end. Siraj and Thakur complimented their senior partners by bowling wicket to wicket and picking up wickets whenever England was trying to regroup.
In the first innings, England saw one of its worst batting collapses, ending at 183 all out from 138-3. In the second innings, although they got past 300, the only batsman to cross 40 was captain Root who made a gutsy hundred.
It was the second time since the 2018 Johannesburg Test that the Indian pacers picked up all twenty wickets in a Test match. The England top and middle order didn't have any answer to Bumrah and Co's firepower. Sam Curran, who became the face of the home side's lower order resistance against the same bowlers in 2018 (272 runs in four matches), couldn't do anything special either.
Jadeja justifies his selection with another handy knock
Team India decided to go with Jadeja as the sole spinner in place of Ashwin, despite the latter looking dangerous in India's WTC final loss (with spells of 2-28 and 2-17), on a Southampton surface which lacked assistence for spinners (also not to forget the TN tweaker's six-wicket haul for Surrey in a county game ahead of the first Test).
Jadeja bowled only sixteen overs in the whole clash, without taking a wicket. It was his batting which made the difference.
In reply to England's first innings total of 183, India looked in horrible situation as they slumped from 97-1 to 145-5. While Rahul kept fighting from one end, Jadeja gave him much needed company with a 60-run sixth wicket partnership and catapulted India towards a first innings lead.
The Saurashtra veteran's classy knock of 56 in 86 deliveries, backed by some resistance from the tail, ensured that India got a firm grip over the match with a 97-run lead.
Lower order fightback: A hearty takeaway for team management
In 2018, the five Tests became a direct contest between the Indian pacers and the home side's lower order batters. In Edgbaston, Lord's and Southampton, England's tailenders, led by debutant Sam Curran, added 60-80 runs on average (with the best being in the first innings of the second Test, where Chris Woakes' 137 took his side from 131-5 to 396 all out. India lost the match by an innings and 159 runs.)
When England visited India earlier this year, Kohli and Co returned the favour with a 3-1 win. Again, the tailenders grabbed the headlines here, this time the ones representing the home team.
In the second innings of the second Test at Chennai, Ashwin's knock of 106 lifted India from 106-6 to 286. England lost the match by 317 runs, their worst Test defeat in the subcontinent. In the fourth Test at Ahmedabad, Washington Sundar's 96 and Axar Patel's 43 brilliantly backed Rishabh Pant's 101-run knock as the visitors lost the match by an innings and 25 runs.
When the two sides met again in England, a similar trend was expected but surprisingly, it came from India.
With India on 205-7, holding a first innings lead of just 22 at the time, Jadeja, Bumrah and Shami decided to give it a swing and ended up adding 73 runs more.
While Curran and Ollie Robinson tried to match the Indian tailenders in the second innings, it was not effective enough as after Root's dismissal, England could add only 29 runs for the last three wickets.
While these factors can boost India's prospects, there were a few deviations from the blueprint as well, giving them some serious worries ahead of the Lord's encounter.
Big score continues to elude Rohit Sharma
When India toured Australia in the last half of 2020, Rohit, along with Shubman Gill, sorted the visitors' opening worries as they went on to win their second Test series Down Under in two years.
Against England at home, Rohit was the second most successful batsman, registering 345 runs in four matches.
In the World Test Championship final, he scored 34 and 30 and was involved in a 62-run opening partnership with Gill after India was asked to bat first in gloomy conditions in Southampton.
In the first innings of the Trent Bridge Test too, he was looking flawless against the England quicks in his 107-ball 36, before his pull shot against an Ollie Robinson bouncer ended up in the hands of Sam Curran at backward square leg. It gave England a little period of domination, as India succumbed from 97-1 to 112-4, before regrouping and securing a crucial 95-run first innings lead.
Be it in Australia, World Test Championship final or Nottingham, all of Rohit's knocks had a similar feature -- the opener standing outside the batting crease to smother lateral movement, leaving the balls around his off stump and playing the ball late -- all the traits for being successful in SENA (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England) countries.
What will frustrate both Rohit and the team management is his promising 30s and 40s not getting converted into big hundreds since last year. Considering the poor form of the Kohli-Pujara-Rahane trio, the visitors would be hoping for the Mumbai batter to go beyond the 50-run mark more often in the coming weeks.
India's middle order woes continue
In the World Test Championship final at Southampton's Rose Bowl, while Rohit and Gill perished after a 62-run opening partnership, Pujara managed only eight runs, putting India at a spot of bother on 88-3.
Kohli and Rahane took India to 149-3 before rain halted proceedings on Day One. The supporters came back the next day expecting their team to put up a 300-plus total, only to be dejected as both the Indian skipper and his deputy fell for 44 and 49 respectively. India ended up on a paltry 217 and conceded a 32-run first innings lead. In the second innings, these three most experienced batsmen could manage only 43 runs between them, resulting in a seven-wicket loss.
In Nottingham too, despite getting a launch pad at 97-1 in the first innings, these three scored only nine runs between them, with Kohli perishing off the very first ball against his nemesis James Anderson.
However, this time, opener KL Rahul and the lower order fought back and helped India gain the ascendancy.
While Kohli's last Test ton came against Bangladesh in the 2019 Kolkata day-night affair, Rahane and Pujara's lack of form has raised some questions too.
Against the Aussies earlier this year, the duo scored 539 runs between them in four matches in Kohli's absence. However, against England at home in the following four-match clash, they made only 245 runs in total. The Indian batting, which is generally known for piling on runs on subcontinent pitches, looked mediocre as it failed to cross the 400-run mark throughout the series.
The trio had earlier scored 1,128 runs in India's 1-4 loss during the 2018 tour.
If India has to start their WTC season two with a bang in England, their middle order needs to replicate what the 'Fab Four' of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman did on the successful tours of 2002 and 2007.