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India v England

Could a rank turner at Chennai hurt India?

by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

A pitch with sharp spin in store for the second Test between India and England in Chennai could backfire for the hosts, writes Rohit Sankar.

It’s a situation India don’t find themselves in often: one-nil down in a home Test series against a non-Asian side.

Everything that could’ve gone wrong for India went wrong in the first Test at Chennai. Axar Patel was ruled out on the eve of the match and they had to make two changes, that were possibly forced, to their spin attack. They lost the toss – yes, it shouldn’t ideally be a factor, but on a flat subcontinental wicket which eventually breaks down, it more often than not is – and watched helplessly as a graceful Joe Root ground them down with a knock for the ages. With the bat, their batsmen showed little composure and in the final innings, a combination of James Anderson‘s mastery and the unevenness of a day-five wicket conquered India.

The first reaction to anything that goes wrong in home games, for it rarely goes wrong for India, is the pitch. Here, the absence of a rank turner seemed to have played a part in India’s loss, at least according to some of the comments from within the camp.

“The reality of the situation is that the pitch was very flat and slow,” Virat Kohli said in the post-match press conference. “I’m not saying that as an excuse and that we will hold onto as a team. But you have to understand the reality of what went on. That was the case in the first two days. Even day three when the wicket really started to change. Before that it was a really flat and slow pitch.”

India seemed to have rectified that on the eve of the second Test, according to vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane. Sporting a rare smirk, the usually composed Rahane’s first reaction to a question on the Chennai wicket for the second Test was a big smile, followed up by the words, “It looks completely different. I am sure it will turn from day one.”

Rank turners have worked in India’s favour against South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies in the recent past. But, unlike any of the aforementioned teams, England have a batting line-up that can hold up quite well against spin. Unlike those teams, England have come for this tour immediately after a series win against Sri Lanka in their backyard. Unlike those teams, England have already thwarted the spin challenge, arriving for the second Test with a 1-0 lead.

Notably, India’s spinners were overshadowed by England’s own. While Jack Leach and Dom Bess had their own issues in different phases of the first Test, they ended the Test with a combined average of 29.18, a far cry from what India’s trio of spinners managed (42.00). While England’s spinners struck every 47th ball on an average, India’s spinners took 74 balls.

As effective as Ravichandran Ashwin was, Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar were immensely disappointing. Nadeem conceded runs at nearly four runs per over and Sundar was dealt with easily by England batsmen. Even if they bring in Axar and Kuldeep Yadav for the second Test, one will be making a debut and the other playing a Test for the first time since January 2019. Add to it the fact that they have a less-than-reliable option behind the stumps and the possibility of a tailormade wicket backfiring appears high.

The lack of impact from the spinners could be attributed to India’s spinners bowling a large chunk of their overs on day one and two when the wicket was flat. But, the larger worry is how India’s batsmen have handled spin. Cheteshwar Pujara (twice), Kohli, Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant all fell to spin in the first Test. Three of the senior names in there were also part of India’s decimation too the hands of Steven O’Keefe on a rank turner in Pune in 2017.

Bess has been dropped for the second Test and England come in with Moeen Ali, who not only has a wood over some of these Indian batsmen, but also smashed his way to a century at this very venue five years back. However, they are without Jofra Archer and Anderson, arguably the visitors’ best options on flat wickets. A wicket like the one at Pune in 2017 nearly negates the difference in quality between two bowling attacks, and brings to the fore the technical efficiency of batsmen in handling what the pitch throws up.

While a flat wicket would have forced England to hunt for wickets in the absence of Archer and Anderson, they will now be more dependent on how their batsmen handle the pitch and India’s spinners, something they did with aplomb in the last Test.

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