New Delhi: It took just four sessions of the Hyderabad Test for the hunter to become hunted. England, who were the underdogs before the five-match series began, took the fight into the Indian camp and turned the tables spectacularly on the hosts. India continued to be in a spiral after the dramatic 28-run loss as two of their key players – top-order batsman KL Rahul and all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja – suffered injuries and are now doubtful for rest of the series. Rohit Sharma & Co, who were expected to run over England are suddenly staring down the barrel of bleak future.
How did it go wrong so badly? You have to it hand it to England for this fantastic turnaround. Unfazed by the challenge of a 190-run first innings deficit nor the fall of five wickets at the score of 163, they continued to hustle led by the defiant Ollie Pope. The 26-year-old Surrey batsman employed a variety of sweep shots and used his feet brilliantly with such command and precision that it completely took the sting out of the threat posed by the Indian spin trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. Of the 257 runs England scored following the dismissal of captain Ben Stokes, Pope’s contribution was 136.
Pope’s approach inspired the lower order batsmen — wicketkeeper Ben Foakes (34) and spinners Rehan Ahmed (28), Tom Hartley (34) – who gave him good company as England chipped and charged to 420. No wonder, Stokes termed Pope’s knock as the greatest played by an English batsman in the subcontinent.
While England followed their ‘Bazball’ style of playing fearless cricket, the Indian batsmen surprisingly withdrew into a shell chasing 231 in the fourth innings. It was in stark contrast to their first innings display when they put the ‘inexperienced’ English attack – debutant left-arm spinner Tom Hartley, one-Test old Rehan Ahmed, left-arm spinner Jack Leach and pacer Mark Wood — to sword-posting 436. Leach’s knee injury on the first day of the Test dented the bowling further.
Yet, this bowling line-up feasted on the tentativeness of the Indian batsmen to script a famous win. Hartley, who was carted for 131 runs for 25 overs in the first years, made a stirring comeback in the second innings by hitting the right lengths on a fourth-day pitch to claim 7 wickets for 62 runs in his 26.2 overs. All that homework of studying Jadeja and Patel’s videos had paid off handsomely for the 24-year-old Lancastrian.
In effect, India have left themselves a mountain to climb. The list of players getting sidelined has not helped them either. Since the 2023 World Cup, India has lost key personnel to injuries beginning with all-rounder Hardik Pandya, fast bowler Mohammad Shami and now Jadeja and Rahul. Add Virat Kohli, who stayed away from the start of this series owing to personal issues and wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant, recovering from a ghastly accident last year, to the list, which is almost half the side down.
The absence of top players means India will be short on experience as they look to bounce back in the series. Batting has become an area of concern. A weak middle-order has increased the dependency on openers Rohit and Yashasvi Jaiswal.
No 3 Shubman Gill (21 Tests) and middle-order bat Shreyas Iyer (13 Tests) need to get their act together soon while wicketkeeper KS Bharat has to step up and go beyond his best Test score of 44 to strengthen the batting.
Gill has struggled since dropping down from the opening slot to No.3, totalling 142 runs in five Tests and it would do his confidence a world of good if he returns to his familiar role as opener. The experienced Rohit Sharma, should be able to settle down in the No.3 slot well if his past records are an indication. In the 9 Tests he has played at home in the middle-order Rohit has averaged 85.44. Gill, anyway at some stage in the future is going to don the opener’s role so why not now?
The bigger problem however is the line-up that follows next because the absence of Rahul means India will be banking on debutants — the 30-year-old Rajat Patidar, who scored back to back centuries against England Lions last and the swashbuckling Mumbai batter Sarfaraz Khan – to fill that slot and hope that whoever gets the nod, comes good. Patidar, the first to get into the squad when Virat Kohli ruled himself out of the first two Tests owing citing personal issues, will be the obvious choice but Khan need not despair his turn will come soon.
The bowling is relatively better placed although the all-round skills of Jadeja will be missed. In chinaman spinner Kuldeep Yadav, India have a mystery spinner while Bumrah and Ashwin will continue to be the key men.
The England win has certainly spiced up the contest and they will continue to snap at the Indian heels. Rohit & Co need not despair much but they need to erase the second innings memories of Hyderabad quickly. For inspiration all they have to do is look back at their 2023 World Cup campaign, where barring the final, their collective brilliance lit up the 50-over tournament.