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A fascinating start

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Number_one_Best_Greatest_cricketSo much for five-nil. In Rajkot, England showed that they could not only compete with India but provide them with a genuine challenge, as the hosts were left to hold on for a draw in a nerve-jangling finale to the first Test. Victory proved to be beyond England in the end but it would not have been undeserved for a side which had outperformed their much-vaunted opponents at every turn. There is no doubt that we are in for an enthralling and hard-fought series.

Winning the toss gave England the initial advantage, allowing their batsmen first use of a pitch which was flat for the first three days before starting to deteriorate on the fourth. After the trials of Dhaka, when the English batting line-up fell apart under the pressure of Bangladeshi spin, the way in which they dealt with the triple threat of Ashwin, Jadeja and Mishra was impressive.  

 

No visiting batsman had scored a century in India since 2013, yet England’s first innings changed that three times over.

The fundamental value of Joe Root and Ben Stokes – two players who would be amongst the first names on the team-sheet for any side in the world – was again emphasised, but it was the latest in a string of excellent performances from Moeen Ali which was particularly satisfying.

Moeen is a vital component in the English machine, a batsman who can anchor or attack from whatever position in the eleven. After coming in at number five at a tricky moment on the first afternoon, his 179-run partnership with Root snuffed out any Indian hopes of bowling England out cheaply.

With Alastair Cook adding a fourth century in the second innings, England again showed that their batting line-up has the potential to be the best in the world, especially as they may well have finally resolved the selection dilemma which has hung over them since 2012.

 

Not since the appearance of Joe Root has there been such excitement around a debutant. Whilst the weight of expectation can be a heavy burden for any player to bear, England has found a player who appears to thrive on it. The performance of Haseeb Hameed was of such maturity and quality that even on the strength of this single Test, he is being spoken of as the long-term replacement for Andrew Strauss. Technically solid but not afraid to attack, as Jadeja discovered when he was planted back over his head for six, Hameed instinctively adapted to the conditions, playing with soft hands to manoeuvre the ball around the field on his way to a second-innings 82. He looks born to play Test cricket and England has good reason to be excited about him.

But it is the performance of England’s spinners which will be of greatest significance for the rest of this series. Tests in India are won by spin and in this first outing the English trio of Moeen, Adil Rashid and Zafar Ansari categorically out-bowled their home rivals. Rashid was terrific, producing his best performance in an England shirt so far as he bowled with consistency and genuine threat to take seven wickets in the match. Moeen bowled beautifully, too, economical and ever-dangerous, whilst Ansari, in his second Test, took three wickets with his slow left-arm.

Overall, England’s spinners took thirteen wickets to India’s nine, and they will arrive in Visakhapatnam in the best possible frame of mind. They look confident and undaunted by the pressure they are under, and it is significant that in his post-match comments, Cook pointed to the presence in the England party of the cool and experienced head of Saqlain Mushtaq. His appointment is bearing fruit.   

For the remainder of the series, the pitches will offer yet more to the spinners and it is unlikely that the experienced Indian bowlers will not make the most of them. But India’s batsmen have shown that they are not immune to spin either and their own performance in the second innings, as well as that of the English bowlers, has given them much to ponder. What happens next will be truly fascinating.

 

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Jake Perry is a freelance cricket writer. He writes regularly on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotl...

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