England beat India by 227 runs in the series opener in Chennai – a result no one expected or dreamt of especially after a second-rung Indian team beat a full-strength Australia in the latter’s own backyard for s historic series triumph just last month in January. But that is why cricket and sport in general is such a great leveler. England has breached India’s home fortress and caused some panic and tension. It was India’s first defeat at home in 15 Test matches and only their second since mid December 2012.
A lot went wrong for India at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai. We look at 5 causes of concern for the home team in the loss in the series opener.
Virat Kohli has never lost a Test at home after winning the toss. India has won 13 out of the 15 matches when Kohli has called the coin right and drawn two. In as many as 14 of these matches Kohli won the toss and elected to bat first. The only time he chose otherwise was in a drawn match against South Africa in Bengaluru in 2015. Now the more interesting statistic. Kohli has lost the toss on 12 occasions in India. The country’s two Test match losses since mid-December 2012 (Australia in Pune 2017 and England in Chennai in 2021) have come when the opposition captain has won the toss and elected to bat first.
Kohli has lost the toss in 50% of the home matches since 2018. If the coin does not fall in India’s favour in Chennai in the second Test expect England to again notch up a huge first innings score and put India under pressure. The home team is under a bit of a quandary here. If they get a rank turner from Day 1 then their batsmen are at equal risk against the likes of Jack Leach and Dom Bess. Also, India do not have Ravindra Jadeja to exploit the conditions with R Ashwin. If they go in with a bit of grass then James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer are more than capable of routing India for less than 150. And if they play on a similar track as the first Test then the toss virtually decides the match.
THE FAILURE OF AJINKYA RAHANE
Ajinkya Rahane scored a great hundred at MCG to level the series. It inspired India to stage one of the greatest fightbacks in Test cricket history and win the series 2-1. Rahane – the captain was brilliant too with his bowling changes, strategies and field placements. But behind the success in Australia are hidden the failures of Rahane the batsman since 2020 notwithstanding the Melbourne hundred.
From the tour to New Zealand till the end of the Chennai Test in 2021, Rahane has an aggregate of 360 runs in 7 Tests (14 innings) at an average of 27.69 with just one hundred (MCG) and no fifty! If we remove the magnificent 112, Rahane has scored just 248 runs in the other 13 innings at a paltry average of 20.67 with a highest score of 46. These are very poor returns. With a 5+1+5 combination at home, India cannot afford to have their number 5 batsman out of form for a considerable length of time – it weakens their batting, prolongs their lower-order and tail and puts enormous pressure on the top 4.
SHAHBAZ NADEEM – NOT QUITE RAVINDRA JADEJA
Ravindra Jadeja is one of India’s greatest match winners at home in the last few years. His bowling average in wins is just marginally higher than Ashwin’s. One of his other great strengths in Indian conditions is his disciplined line and length over after over, match after match – like a workhorse. Jadeja has a phenomenal economy rate of just 2.24 at home. India sorely missed him in Chennai against England where they were in desperate need of a seasoned left-arm orthodox bowler. Jack Leach troubled India in the fourth innings and returned with 4 wickets. Jadeja would have been a handful on that wicket both in the first innings and second against an opposition known to have troubles against that type of bowling.
Nadeem, playing in just his second Test, could neither provide India with the breakthroughs nor was able to control the flow of runs. He bowled a number of short-pitched deliveries which were cut away to the boundary by the English batsmen. There was no pressure built neither any consistency in line and length. He let England get away letting go of the good work done by the more experienced trio of Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Ashwin.
Nadeem was the most expensive Indian bowler in the first innings conceding 167 runs in his 44 overs bowling just 4 maidens. Although he was better in the second innings he still went for 66 runs in his 15 overs. He was also guilty of delivering as many as 9 no balls in the match – unforgivable for a slow bowler at the highest level in the game.
WASHINGTON SUNDAR – THE BOWLER
Everyone is mighty impressed with Washington Sundar – the batsman. And rightly so. He scored a classy unbeaten 85 in the first innings under pressure and put together an 80-run stand with fellow Chennai boy, Ashwin. It was a top knock with some exquisite drives and a lesson on how to bat on that Chennai wicket for some of the Indian top-order. But Sundar is not in the side as a batsman. Sundar is playing as the bowling all-rounder keeping in mind India’s 5+1+5 combination at home.
He is expected to play the role of the 5th bowler for India in the match which essentially means to cover for Ashwin and Nadeem and keep things tight while they take a breather. Any wicket will be a bonus. But Sundar the bowler did not live up to expectations. Known for his restrictive abilities as was on display in the IPL in UAE in 2020, he was taken for 55 in his 12 overs at a run rate of 4.58 on the opening day in Chennai. He did not deliver any maidens and bowled on both sides of the wicket. Such low was the confidence of his captain in Sundar that he asked the off spinner to bowl just one over in the second innings on a turning and crumbling wicket.
As good as might be with the bat at number 7, Sundar cannot sustain a place for himself in the Indian XI unless he can deliver with the ball. And from what we have witnessed at Chepauk over the course of the last five days, as good as he is in limited overs with the ball, he does not seem to be there yet in Test cricket.
India have preferred the 5+1+5 combination at home for the last few years now. It has worked for them and they have dominated the last 7-8 years like no team at home in an era. There have been two major factors for their great record at home in this period – R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. With the latter out of the series due to injury, India is severely hampered and desperately in search of a quality bowling all-rounder.
They do not have many options. Sundar, from whatever evidence he has given seems more of a batsman than a bowler at the Test level. If they play Hardik Pandya he would slot in as a specialist batsman and only ease into his bowling. Axar Patel was ruled out of the Test series just hours before the opener due to a knee problem.
India might as well play six specialist batsmen and Pant and draft in Kuldeep Yadav in place of Shahbaz Nadeem in the second Test. Or replace Sundar with Mohammed Siraj and Nadeem with Kuldeep Yadav. That would be a better combination than the one with which they went out in the first Test given the available resources.