India captain Virat Kohli refused to be drawn into responding to a question whether the first Test against England starting on Wednesday will be a three-day game or last the distance. To start with, it’s impossible to predict how the pitch will behave unless a few balls are bowled.
However, the moment the Indian cricket board’s chief curator, Daljit Singh, made his entry at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium on Monday, the colour of the wicket started to change.
Till then, being SCA’s first Test, the local curator seemed to be playing safe and preparing a regular track with a fair covering of grass. Soon, the groundstaff was vigorously scrubbing the business part of the pitch at both ends.
From a sporting track, which will take turn from Day 3 onwards, the tune of the local experts had changed to “it may turn from late on the first or second day”.
The man who would know best the nature of this track is Ravindra Jadeja, and India captain Virat Kohli would do well to consult him before deciding on the team combination. It was on similar tracks in Rajkot last year that Jadeja claimed 38 wickets in four Ranji games to make his India comeback.
The home team’s dilemma is whether to play an extra spinner or have their usual combination of four specialist bowlers and six batsmen. Kohli has a choice to make, between Karun Nair and Hardik Pandya. To accommodate three spinners, all-rounder Pandya should be favourite to get his Test debut.
Whatever the combination and conditions, India will start favourites, and as Kohli plots to end England’s dominant run against his side, the trump card will be a refreshed R Ashwin. Ominously for England, having tasted defeat in 2012, the off-spinner will need no extra motivation. The 1-2 defeat at home remains one of the low points of the off-spinner’s career.
The off-spinner has taken 58 wickets in the last seven home Tests, against South Africa and New Zealand. After seeing how the England batsmen struggled against Bangladesh’s rookie off-spinner Mehedi Hasan, who took 19 wickets in two matches, the Chennai man will be licking his lips at the prospect of bowling against them. Also, having been rested for the one-day series against New Zealand, he will be raring to go.
The most anticipated is his battle with England captain Alastair Cook. It is expected to be the decisive period of play. Ashwin will have the natural advantage of the angle bowling to the left-hand batsman while Cook is England’s most prolific player. Four years ago, he had brought Ashwin and Co to their knees, scoring 562 runs with three centuries in four games at an average of 80.28.
THE KEY BATTLE
Though the 135-Test veteran had a below-par series in Bangladesh, Cook has looked solid in the nets. If he is vulnerable at some point, it will be against an off-spinner at the start of the innings. Bangladesh offie Mehedi twice got him early, and letting Ashwin have a go at Cook early is likely to be part of Kohli’s strategy.
The England captain acknowledged the threat posed by Ashwin. “Ashwin’s strength is his confidence is sky high…, (given) the number of wickets he has taken in the last one year in Indian conditions. Probably he knows his game better than he did three years ago. Four years down the line of experience and craft. You don’t become a world-class spinner overnight, it takes a lot of time. Probably Ashwin has done that,” said Cook.
After Bangladesh, England are vulnerable. More importantly, the wickets will be tailor made to exploit the visting side’s weakness - spin.