A feature of top teams is that they make things happen when a game is drifting or proceedings are not going their way. This facet of the Indian team came to the fore on Day 3 of the second Test against the West Indies at Port of Spain in Trinidad on Saturday.
With the pitch offering precious little to any type of bowling and the home team focused more on occupying the crease for as long as possible rather than scoring runs at a decent clip, it was up to the Indians to make the play, so to speak.
So, Ravichandran Ashwin produced a peach that drifted away in the air before turning in after pitching and hitting the off-stump to end Kraigg Brathwaite’s stubborn resistance. Then soon after tea, Ajinkya Rahane took a stunner at slip when an outside edge from Jermaine Blackwood’s bat deflected off wicketkeeper Ishan Kishan’s pads and wrong-footed him. Rahane was moving the other way but an outstretched hand gobbled up the ball, much to the delight of bowler Ravindra Jadeja. Then, just before a rain interruption, Mohammed Siraj used the wobble seam to great effect, getting one to breach the gap between bat and pad as Joshua da Silva went for an expansive drive.
All these wickets were manufactured on a placid surface that didn’t have much in the form of pace or bounce, with not much turn on offer either.
The hosts ended the day on 229/5. While they showed much more application than the shoddy display in Dominica, their overly defensive approach with the bat – they managed just 143 runs on a rain-affected day – left them vulnerable to being too far behind in the game if they lost a few quick wickets. India persisting with the old ball for more than 102 overs didn’t help the scoring rate either. They have lost half their side and have not yet avoided the follow-on, with two days left in the match.
But all may not yet be lost for Caribbean cricket. It’s there more experienced players who have let the team down, especially with the bat, in the series so far but it has been the two newcomers who have provided a bit of a silver lining.
Alick Athanaze in Dominica and Kirk McKenzie in Trinidad – it’s the two debutants who have shown a better understanding of what’s needed to counter the Indian bowling. Some of the other West Indians have oscillated between dead defence and reckless aggression – one or two even seeming out of their depth – but Athanaze and McKenzie seem aware of the mix needed to thrive.
Battle of attrition
The hosts were never too bothered about the scoring rate on Saturday, with survival being the name of the game. They are still 209 behind but at least, they have made the tourists toil in the field for 108 overs so far after the rather easy outing they had at Windsor Park.
On the third day at Port of Spain, West Indies resumed with the rare luxury of a good opening stand. Kraig Brathwaite (75 off 235 balls) and McKenzie looked largely untroubled, with the debutant always on the lookout for scoring opportunities, while his skipper lived up to his reputation of being a stodgy customer. It was a bit of a surprise when McKenzie went for a cut to a ball from fellow debutant Mukesh Kumar that was neither wide nor short enough for the shot, edging it behind.
It was his first knock at this level and he made ‘only’ 32, but McKenzie looked better equipped to deal with the challenges of Test cricket than some of his more seasoned teammates. Late on Friday, he showed few nerves in pumping Ashwin over mid-off for six, his first boundary in Test cricket.
During the 57 balls he faced, the 22-year-old from Jamaica showed himself to be adept against both the full and short ball, and was not particularly discomfited by either pace or spin. Most of the batsmen around him have been bamboozled by Ashwin and Jadeja, but the youngster played the ball and not the bowler.
McKenzie got beaten a couple of times outside the off-stump by Jaydev Unadkat in the first over of the third day, but he showed an ability to put the previous ball out of his mind, straight-driving the left-arm seamer on the last ball. He repeated the dose in Unadkat’s next over, this time the slow outfield unable to prevent the ball from going all the way to the boundary. The next ball was smashed past short mid-off for another four. When the left-armer’s attempted short ball didn’t get up enough, McKenzie nonchalantly pulled him through midwicket.
It was only Mukesh who troubled him a bit with his discipline outside off-stump, and it was one such delivery that proved to be his downfall.
After the debacle in Dominica, skipper Brathwaite had blamed himself for not leading from the front. He had been dismissed twice by Ashwin, as the team crumbled to 150 and 130. The hosts had a job at hand to restore some pride in Caribbean cricket after the recent setbacks across formats, and Brathwaite seemed determined to make up for it in Trinidad. On a pitch similar to several low and slow ones in India, he was intent to hold one end up. There may have been some harsh words spoken in the home dressing room after the first Test, as for once the other batsmen looked keen to follow the captain’s lead, eschewing all risk. Even the normally adventurous Jermaine Blackwood put his head down.
With not much assistance from the conditions , the Indian pacers resorted to bowling at the stumps, with an umbrella field close on the leg-side. With almost every delivery into them, the batsmen had to be careful not hitting anything in the air.
Even in such unhelpful conditions, Ashwin’s control and prowess kept the batsmen honest. With an economy rate of under two runs an over, he not only kept the scoring rate in check, but also challenged their survival instincts with changes in flight, trajectory, line and pace, getting the odd one to turn. At the other end, Jadeja was his usual miserly self, going at under a run an over.
Their accuracy and the obduracy of the hosts meant the game wasn’t progressing much either way, despite Day 3 being termed the ‘moving day’ in Test cricket. It was only when Ashwin produced a pearler, drifting one away in the air before landing on a bit of a rough patch and finding the gap between bat and pad to hit the stumps, that the match threatened to break open. The dismissal prompted Blackwood and Athanaze to go into their shells even more.
It says something about the strength in depth of the Indian first-class structure that an honest trier with a good record domestically, but with not much in the way of pace or movement in his arsenal, could do a job when called upon. And Mukesh was disciplined in line and length, getting just enough movement to keep the batsmen in check.