In international cricket circles, India has traditionally been regarded as tough country to tour. During the first three decades after Independence, England used to send their second string side to visit India and play Test matches as most of the senior players preferred not to expose themselves to the perils of touring the sub continent. From the 1970s onwards, India mastered the art of preparing the pitches that blunted the firepower of the fast bowlers of the visiting side while providing extra help to our spin bowlers. The slow wickets where the ball kept low and turned square made batting a challenge, even for the best willow wielders of the world.
Even after India developed fast bowlers capable of generating pace and bounce and stopped being dependent on the spinners to churn out wins, defeating the country on their home turf was considered to be a difficult task. The huge crowds yelling out support to the home team, the pressure cooker like atmosphere in which matches are played and the heat and dust which are an inalienable part of the ambience prevailing here possess the potential to reduce even the best of players to nervous wrecks. It required not just excellent cricketing technique but also unflappable temperament and extraordinary physical stamina to surmount the obstacles and emerge successful in tours to this country. It was for this reason that Steve Waugh correctly named India as the “final frontier” to be conquered by the his side, which was on a record breaking spree winning 16 Test matches on the trot in 2000-01. And it was at Kolkata, Waugh’s favourite city outside Australia, that the Aussie juggernaut was finally halted by the most remarkable turnaround in the history of the game, which was scripted by V V S Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh.
Given this history, Joe Root would have felt some trepidation when he walked out to bat for the first time in a Test match at Nagpur in December, 2012. However, he came to terms with the conditions quickly and grafted a patient 73, facing 229 balls, with just four hits to the fence. Root soon established himself as one of the pillars of England’s batting, seldom missing a game. The maturity that he displayed at the crease and the skills he demonstrated while leading his county Yorkshire to championship title in 2014 marked him out as the future captain the national side. He assumed this mantle in 2017 and celebrated by scoring a hundred in his first Test as skipper, against South Africa at Lord’s. He did not let the pressures of captaincy affect his batting as he rose to be regarded as one of top four batsmen in contemporary cricket, alongside Virat Kohli of India, Kane Williamson of New Zealand and Steve Smith of Australia.
Root’s captaincy blossomed during the period he has been at the helm as he led England to home series win against India in 2018, drew the Ashes series of 2019 and scripted a victory over South Africa in 2020. When international cricket resumed after the lockdown brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, England recorded victories over the West Indies and Pakistan, the two sides that toured that country during the summer of 2020. They followed this up with a convincing 2-0 victory over Sri Lanka in their own turf, before flying across the Park Straits to India to commence the ongoing series. Root was in spectacular form in Sri Lanka, holding the England batting together with scores of 228 and 186 respectively in the two Tests.
The series presently underway in India sees the hosts who recently bested Australia on the pitches Down Under pitted against England, fresh from their win in Sri Lanka. India’s win in Australia, which came as a major surprise, was achieved on account of exemplary performance of their fast bowlers, whose discipline and positive attitude overcame whatever shortcomings they had on account of their relative inexperience. Indian batsmen also excelled by handling the Aussie speedsters with composure and calm confidence on hard bouncy pitches wickets tailor-made for fast bowlers. England, on the other hand, had been powered to victory by the batting of Root and the bowling of their spin twins Dom Bess and Jack Leach, who picked up 22 out of the 40 Sri Lankan wickets that fell during the two-Test series.
Given this background, one would have expected the Indian think tank to ask for a hard bouncy track at Chennai. After all there had been many instances in the past when wickets that gave assistance to fast bowlers were prepared on this ground, like in 1975 and 1979 against the West Indies. But the groundsman surprised one and all by presenting a wicket where the ball comes slowly on to the bat. India also had little hesitation about dropping Mohammed Siraj, who had picked up his first five-wicket haul in the last Test of the previous series at Brisbane, and bringing in his place Shahbaz Nadeem, a slow left-arm bowler playing only in his second Test.
Skipper Root would not have expected a better gift from the Indian authorities on the occasion of playing his 100th Test. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands and crafted a brilliant double hundred, while also helping his side to a mammoth first innings score. While doing so, Root became the first player to score a double century on his 100th appearance in Test matches. He joins the select bandwagon of great cricketers who could complete a century of appearances in the oldest and toughest format of the game. The fact that the strength of this club is limited to a mere 69 members (including the latest entrant) and even all time greats like Don Bradman, Gary Sobers, Richard Hadlee and Imran Khan do not figure in its annals show the extent of difficulty in entering its exclusive portals.
Statistics reveal that only nine of the 69 players who played 100 Tests and beyond could score a century in their 100th match. Six of them achieved this while playing in their home country while three, including Root reached this landmark on foreign soil. Incidentally, none of the 10 Indian players who figure in this list could score a century on this occasion, but Inzamam-ul-Haq and Root, who attained this landmark while playing in India scored hundreds! Root will, in all probability, be uttering a special word of thanks to the groundsman and his team for preparing a pitch akin to the ones that he played in Sri Lanka, where he scored mountains of runs.
This series serves, for all practical purposes, as the semifinals of the ICC World Test Championship as New Zealand have already assured themselves a place in the finals. It would be foolish to underestimate England as they have proved time and again that they possess the resources to do well in India. The fact that they are the only side who won a Test series in India during the second decade of the present century underscores this aspect. Playing to one’s strength in home conditions is the accepted norm in Test cricket and it is surprising that Indian team management failed to understand where our advantages lie despite the amazing series win in Australia. It would be a gross miscarriage of justice should India were to lose to England and fail to make it to the title clash.
Root succeeded in “batting India out” of the game, by ensuring, through this monumental innings, that his side reached a position where defeat looks a highly improbable option. The Indian think tank will need to rework their strategy if they are to get back to winning ways in the next Test, which will also be played at the same venue.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)