England have been beaten but they are far from broken. And that’s what makes this victory such a baffling contradiction for Rohit Sharma. There was no spectacular batting dominance, no seamless passing of the baton with every batter ratcheting up the scoring rate while tiring out inexperienced spinners and no swashbuckling knock from Sharma or Shreyas Iyer. Which has only added to a lingering uneasiness because Yashasvi Jaiswal and Shubman Gill are still young and raw.
Catches weren’t missed but that didn’t make the fielding scintillating, partly because Sharma was averse to pressing more close-in fielders into the England batters’ face despite sitting on a massive lead. Mukesh Kumar’s only purpose seemed to be letting Jasprit Bumrah know if the ball was reversing or not. Axar Patel has seen better times. If India won, it was — as Rahul Dravid rightly put — because of individual brilliance, more precisely Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin because England were showing no signs of slowing down on Monday. Which is also why Dravid didn’t mind saying the next three Tests were going to be ‘tough’ as well. That is coach-speak for “India can’t take anything for granted”.
What can Sharma do differently? Loosen the shackles, to begin with. Central to the fun of watching a home series is the unyielding aggression with which Indian batters generally go about their business. That was sucked out of the contest. Watching Sharma plod about aimlessly on the first morning was difficult, especially because it has been only three months since his enthralling take on the opening role at the ODI World Cup. And while there was probably an apparent compulsion to fill in for Virat Kohli and KL Rahul, the timelessness about Sharma is as much about his instinctive batting as his street smartness. Neither should be sacrificed on the altar of leadership.
More so because England aren’t adhering to any fixed logic of cricket per se. In Ben Stokes they have a captain who believes that before anything else the game should be entertaining, and that defeats are worth risking in the pursuit of spectacular victories. The most visible change due to this evolution of thought is in their batting, which though relentless, isn’t mindless.
“I think it’s not like wild slogging,” Dravid said on Monday. “Some of the shots they are playing require a lot of skills and ability. You can’t just come and execute those things.” Not just attack, but England can also wait, watch and prepare the ground for an offensive was evident from the way Stokes slowed down the day after lunch. “There’s more to it than just attacking cricket,” said Dravid. “I have seen at times they know when to pull back, when to attack. They have been playing differently, there’s no doubt about it.”
To not match them shot for shot, thus, is the first favour India can do themselves. That will eradicate the need to, say, play a reverse sweep that brought about Gill’s dismissal — the biggest turning point of India’s second innings. Rightly identifying the time to slow down and consolidate starts without retreating into a shell is also an instinct India’s batters need to hone quickly. Ollie Pope has already done it successfully once with Ben Foakes at Hyderabad, raising 112 runs for the sixth wicket in a match altering stand. And while India have won at Visakhapatnam, they could have been in an even better position to dictate the terms had Gill built on that 89-run sixth-wicket stand with Patel in the second innings.
Getting the selection right is another non-negotiable. A distinct difference in the way Stokes and Sharma have functioned is their personnel management. England came to India aware of their bowling limitations but still found a non-nonsense working combination. But India shying away from deploying the one pacer-three spinners combination despite England taking 40 Indian wickets with the same makes even less sense now. That too, when India already have two highly functioning operators in Bumrah and Ashwin.
“Whenever he comes back on, you know Rohit’s looking for a wicket,” Stokes said of Bumrah. With someone to provide such a headstart in every Test, the onus is on Sharma to run a tight ship, without having to factor in a few sloppy overs from Kumar or Axar Patel. Streamlining the line of attack is as important as making it productive, and England have looked ahead of India on that front.
At a deeper level, the teams’ collective psychology seems to be driving performances in this series more than skill. Stokes — and his team of mavericks — is walking the talk of charging at targets as impossible as 399, even managing to turn a once-conservative Joe Root into a pedlar of reverse sweeps against Ashwin. Liberated from the grind of the usual lines of assessment, this team is growing to be the mirror image of Stokes, who is devoted to leaving everything on the field but at the same time detached from the rewards attached to it.
That England have chosen this way to proceed with the game is their choice. For India however to display some semblance of swagger at home, they must instil once again the pride and belief that made them runaway favourites in the last decade. That should be Sharma’s biggest priority.