Make no mistake, this was a team effort from the Indian cricket team that took them to a crushing 157-run victory over England soon after tea on day five of The Oval Test, which has put them ahead 2-1 with a tantalising decider to be played at Old Trafford later this week.
For a team smashed at Headingley, where on day one they were skittled for 78, this is a massive statement. It is one, no one will whisper softly, that fans of this team have come to expect. India are not touring cardboard cutouts, there just to compete. They expect to win, and when the do not, they have this startling ability to put defeats behind them. We saw this in Australia in 2018 and 2020 and now on this tour of England.
Across five days, England had the better conditions. They had more opportunities to win this Test. Their captain won the toss, for crying out loud. But thanks to some critical players and their clutch performances, Virat Kohli’s India refused to be felled. Shardul Thakur, back in the side, scored two half-centuries where others struggled and claimed the wickets of Ollie Pope for 81, Rory Burns for 50 and Joe Root for 36. Umesh Yadav, playing his first Test since being setback with injury in December 2020, roared back with six wickets.
Rohit Sharma reaped the rewards of patience with his first overseas Test hundred, a truly match-setting innings. Rohit’s opening partner, KL Rahul, helped settle the choppy waters with a watchful 46 during a century stand that allowed India to dream. Cheteshwar Pujara rebounded from a poor first innings with a classy 61 in the second. Rishabh Pant atoned for an awful shot on day one with his slowest Test fifty on day four. Ravindra Jadeja, of whom Kohli said this Test would see his biggest impact of the series, bowled the most over he has on tour and took four wickets. On day five, his repeated creating of the rough allowed Jasprit Bumrah to swing the game open wide with a stellar spell of reverse swing. Indeed, the match was won on the fifth day thanks to Bumrah. He is a rare jewel, who must be wrapped in cotton to ensure his longevity as a Test wonder. On this flat surface, to produce bowling to undo a team that had little going against it, underlines Bumrah’s rarity.
And then there was Kohli, whose scores of 50 and 44 found little fanfare during the past five days simply because of the insanely high standards of batting he has set. But to watch a world-class player trying to get back into, by his level, ‘good nick’ was fascinating. This was a team effort, entirely, with no one player capable of hogging the headlines. This is what defines the best teams in the sport, and India, despite losing the World Test Championship to New Zealand in England on this tour, have genuine ambitions to owning that title.
If there is one player in this Indian team who, despite the euphoria of the win at The Oval, will feel downtrodden, it is Ajinkya Rahane. India’s batting coach Vikram Rathour said after the fourth day that India are not concerned, at this stage, about any technical frailties with Rahane and that the team is confident that he is almost getting back to form. But it is hard to measure almost, it must be stressed on, because almost doesn’t matter. Will India change a winning team and drop Rahane, the vice-captain, for the Old Trafford Test? Don’t bet on it.
As happens in such pulsating, see-sawing Test matches, there were several turning points. India were 121/7 on day one and managed to get as far as 191 thanks, chiefly, to a stirring fifty from Shardul, back in the XI after missing two matches. Burns failed to pick a thick edge off Rohit Sharma’s bat when the opener was feeling for the ball during an iffy passage on day three. There was a run out missed by Moeen Ali on the fourth day after a mix-up between Pant and Shardul, who collected a second fifty in the match. Earlier, during England’s first innings, Moeen was driving on the rise for fun before he pulled out a terrible slog-sweep. On the fifth day, after batting serenely for 193 deliveries, Haseeb Hameed, after struggling to rotate the strike against Jadeja, was bowled by the left-arm spinner as he looked to guide the ball through the offside.
Headlining India’s spirit on day five at The Oval was Kohli, whose captaincy was spot on. He set smart fields and almost all his bowling changes worked a charm. With England six wickets down, Kohli spurned the option of a new ball and instead went to Shardul, who conjured the prized wicket of Root with little more than a loosener which the skipper chopped onto his stumps when trying to run a single down to third man. This, tactically, might have been Kohli’s best day as Test captain overseas. Where day five at Lord’s was about aggression and intensity, day five at The Oval was about control. And Kohli’s control over proceedings and his ability to push the game along, spoke loud.
India and are tantalisingly close to a first series win in England since 2007. Kohli is already the first Indian captain to win three Test on English soil. This team knows how to win key moments, and a riveting series is now set for a ripper at Old Trafford. Whatever the surface there – and we can expect a green track given that this could be, in all probability, James Anderson’s final home Test – you can expect this Indian team to not be overawed.