You’ve got to look beyond the XI to understand India’s Test excellence, writes Taha Hashim.
You were probably watching Jasprit Bumrah, right? When a quick takes the pitch out of focus, combines high pace with a hint of reverse swing, and rattles the stumps, you’d be a fool not to take notice. Or perhaps it was the parsimony of Ravindra Jadeja that got you going, his left arm fizzing the ball off the footmarks to cause carnage. If not the bowlers, then maybe it was the captain – in his own animated way, Virat Kohli conducted the orchestra magnificently to leave his side basking in the glow of another fifth-day procession in London.
But let’s look beyond Monday’s headliners for just a second. The bullet throw that did for Dawid Malan came from substitute fielder Mayank Agarwal, who hasn’t played a Test since January. Holding on at short leg to dismiss Moeen Ali was another substitute and one who remains uncapped for India in Test cricket, Suryakumar Yadav. Both players took to the field and immediately found a way to contribute to their team’s cause. If you really want to understand India’s recent excellence in the Test arena, this is where you should be looking.
A running pattern has guided India’s success since the start of their resurgence in Australia: both debutants and players returning after lengthy absences have been shepherded into India’s XI and sparkled straight away. Let’s go to Melbourne, where Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj both became Test cricketers. After an Adelaide debacle, India found revenge at the MCG and their newbies were at the heart of it: the former classily compiled 80 runs in the match, while the latter’s tenacity resulted in five wickets.
Navdeep Saini was expensive in Sydney but still nabbed four wickets. In Brisbane, the reserves became heroes: Washington Sundar began his Test career with the dismissal of Steve Smith and a vital 62, while T Natarajan chipped in with three wickets on his debut. Shardul Thakur, playing his first Test since his bow against the West Indies in October 2018, put on his first great all-round show with a first-innings 67 and seven wickets in the match.
When England came to India, it was all about Axar Patel. Straight out of the Jadeja school of left-arm havoc, Axar took 7-100 on a Chennai turner and those were his worst figures of the series.
When it came to India touring England, KL Rahul stepped in at the top of the order at Trent Bridge for his first Test in two years and immediately returned a score of 84. His discipline against the Dukes has been integral in securing his name on the Lord’s honours board and a 2-1 series lead for India ahead of the Old Trafford Test. There was room for a comeback tale at The Oval too: in his first Test appearance of 2021, Umesh Yadav nipped one through Joe Root at the end of day one and bowled with hostility the following morning as he reached the landmark of 150 Test wickets.
The depth of talent is astonishing, but it’s not just about the T-word. It’s about the self-belief the new (or returning) men sees to exude, the barrels of confidence at their disposal and the ability to put away nerves and turn it on almost immediately. It’s not too dissimilar to the tale of New Zealand earlier this summer at Edgbaston against England, when the Black Caps made six changes to their XI from Lord’s but cruised to an eight-wicket win. That India and New Zealand are the best two Test teams in the world isn’t just down to the men on the park; it’s also about the ones on the sidelines waiting to take their place.
Now lies the opportunity for India to secure a first Test series win in England since 2007, and they can’t afford to let up like they did at Headingley when they followed up a fifth-day masterclass at Lord’s with a first-day stinker. Interestingly, it was at Leeds that India, for the only time in this series so far, opted not to tinker with their XI and bring in a new face. Constant tweaks of the formula have served them well and that should be remembered when the line-up is announced for Manchester.