By the time the sun pierced through the clouds on the third morning of the first cricket Test of the return series between India and Sri Lanka, at the Eden Gardens, the green top and the moving ball in seaming conditions occupied the mind space.
A depression over the Bay of Bengal brought rain to Kolkata and the collective number of overs on the first two days could add up to one normal session’s play in which 30 overs have to be bowled.
As luck would have it, Sri Lanka captain Dinesh Chandimal won a crucial toss and expectedly his new-ball bowlers made the batsmen’s life miserable. The very first ball bowled by Suranga Lakmal was unplayable and Lokesh Rahul could only manage to glove the ball on its way to the wicketkeeper.
From then on, it was a question of how long the batsmen will be able to survive battling the conditions, let alone getting runs. Lakmal’s first seven overs were runless and claimed three top batsmen.
The way Shikhar Dhawan got out gave enough for the tongues to wag and when skipper Virat Kohli was adjudged leg-before some of the knowledgeable started worrying about India’s tour this summer of England, encountering similar conditions.
Not only the conditions were English, the bounce reminded the batsmen of Durban and Gabba. It was frightening, even if exciting, to see the fast bowlers revel. Some deliveries were simply unplayable and the batsmen were quick to realize that there was no point in trying to dig in and hope to accumulate runs.
The Indian lower order batsmen showed the Sri Lankans the way to go about, knowing fully well that they were bound to get balls that would whizz past the bat or consume them. They were not unconcerned about the one that flew past the bat and all they did was to connect the ones within their reach. Opener Sadeera Samarawickrama made the dressing room feel that there’s nothing wrong with either the pitch or the bowling. Lahiru Thirimanne and former captain Angelo Mathews counter-attacked to force the Indian pacemen to try different things to get punished before Umesh Yadav came back strongly to consume both.
With two more days to go, the Sri Lankans look good to gain a handy lead if they can negotiate the first hour on the fourth morning. A good lead can put India under pressure.
On the opening day, only 11 overs could be bowled and 17 runs came off them and rain kept the players off the field. On the second day, the number of overs barely doubled and India lost two more wickets. On the sunny third morning, they lost the remaining five wickets to be bowled out for 172, the so-called tail of bowlers yet again gave themselves some runs to bowl at, the last five wickets producing 122 runs.
Cheteshwar Pujara stood out giving a demonstration of batting in “English” conditions and he is fresh from a stint in County cricket when his teammates were busy playing the shorter formats of the game. He showed the importance of knowing you offstump and the patience to leave the deliveries he can afford to with a keen observation. The only other batsman who had the ability to stick around is Ajinkya Rahane but he could not do it this time.
The sun and a drying pitch seemed to have helped not only pace men but also off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, when one thought veteran Rengana Herath will have more work on third day.
Again looking to the more difficult overseas tours ahead, the conditions in Kolkata made pundits to sit up and start thinking of the team composition. It was rightly felt that Murali Vijay, who like Pujara can ground the attack with diligent defence, should have partnered Rahul instead of Shikhar Dhawan, who got the nod on the strength of his excellent showing on the Sri Lanka tour a couple of months ago. Coming in as a replacement for the indisposed Rahul for the first Test, he went on to score two hundreds.
India’s assistant coach and former Test opener Sanjay Bangar wanted the batsmen to play themselves in like he and Rahul Dravid did in similar conditions in Headingley a decade and half ago. What Bangar forgot was that was different batting line-up. Perhaps, he is right this line-up under his watch can be closer to that in comparison and that will be known only in a couple of months, first in South Africa and then in England.
The guys have shown that they can do on seamer-friendly pitches. Vijay did it in England in 2014 and Kohli and Puja also looked good in alien conditions.
Remember, India have won Tests and series in England and came close to winning series both in Australia and in South Africa, the only countries they are still achieve. Like on all recent tours, the team looks good to win there and will go with lot of hope.