India’s frontmen dazzle, sidekicks falter

Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma shared four wickets between them to prove Test preparedness but the support cast disappoints.

On Thursday, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) allowed its members a welcome ‘reprieve’. “Due to the abnormally warm temperatures, MCC has decided to dispense with requirement for gentlemen to wear jackets in the Pavilion and arrive wearing one. This applies to Members of MCC and Middlesex and their guests,” the Lord’s Cricket Ground tweeted from its official Twitter handle.

Things are no different a little further north in Birmingham at the moment also, heatwave-wise. But by Wednesday, when the India-England five-Test series will commence at Edgbaston, ‘normality’ is expected to return. The Met office has predicted a dip in mercury from the next week onwards, and the maximum temperature in Birmingham on August 1 could hover around 23 degrees Celsius.

If the conditions shift from the subcontinental to English, pace bowlers might dominate proceedings, although the Edgbaston pitch traditionally assists the batsmen. As for the Indian fast-bowling attack, shorn of its spearhead Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the onus would be on Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma to fill the void. The two fast bowlers put in a good shift at Chelmsford on the second day of the tour game against Essex on Thursday.

After the visitors were all out for 395, Essex batted on batted and Umesh and Ishant almost immediately got into the action, removing Nick Browne and Varun Chopra in the first session. Umesh had Browne leg before in the sixth over, while Ishant breached Chopra’s defence and caught the opener plumb in front a few overs later.

The pace duo, almost certain to share the new ball in the first Test, was given a fairly elongated break then. When Ishant returned for his second spell, he castled a well-set Michael-Kyle Pepper. Umesh then removed Rishi Patel. The ‘Vidarbha express’ was very miserly as well, giving away only 23 runs in his 14 overs. Ishant was a little more expensive – 2/38 in 10 overs.

Without Kumar though, question mark remains over the support around the two frontline quicks. The apparent lack of support, in fact, allowed Essex to rebuild after two quick wickets upfront. If the Indian team management decides to go with three specialist fast bowlers in the first Test – plus Hardik Pandya as the allrounder – it would be a contest between Mohammad Shami and Shardul Thakur for the third seamer’s slot. Shami played his first competitive fixture in three months – his last game was for Delhi Daredevils against Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL at Eden Gardens on April 16 and looked rusty. He conceded over four runs per over.

Shardul finished the day with 1/41 in nine overs, but he was leaky as well. The Mumbai medium pacer is a like-for-like replacement for Kumar, but he is a greenhorn at this level, with no previous Test experience. If the heatwave prevails and the conditions remain dry, India might be tempted to go with two specialist spinners. Interestingly, R Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav didn’t bowl at all today. Ravindra Jadeja got only two overs and conceded 17 runs.

In India’s last Test match, against Afghanistan in Bangalore last month, Ashwin and Jadeja had accounted for 11 opposition scalps both innings combined. England, however, would a different ball game. Kuldeep’s exploits in white-ball cricket has made him a strong contender for the first Test and this could be a reason why Virat Kohli preferred to keep him under wraps.

But it’s pretty evident that Umesh and Ishant will have to do the bulk of the new-ball bowling in the Tests. They were lively against Afghanistan at home. And they were impressive at Chelmsford today. That Ishant will carry his County experience to five-day cricket is a bonus.

As the Indian team head coach Ravi Shastri explained yesterday, the visitors wanted to get into the Test groove at the soonest and accordingly rescheduled the Essex game to a three-day affair. “It was because of the logistics and the (conditions) that were prevailing. We had an opportunity to practise three days in Birmingham, which is the Test match venue. If we had played four days here, we would have lost that one day because of travel,” Shastri had said. And the team heads to Birmingham on Saturday, with the form of Umesh and Ishant adding to the positives. For the record, Essex finished the day on 237/5, with skipper Tom Westley and Pepper scoring half-centuries.

Brief Scores: India 395 in 100.2 ovs (D Karthik 82, V Kohli 68, KL Rahul 58, M Vijay 53, H Pandya 51; P Walter 4/113) lead Essex 237/5 (M Pepper 68, T Westely 57; U Yadav 2/23, I Sharma 2/38) by 158 runs in 58 overs.