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India's first-Test blues in England

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Virat_Kohli_Test_problems_Edgbaston_England_CricketIndia’s reputation as sluggish starters in overseas Test series has been reinforced almost every time they have toured England, something that Virat Kohli’s men would do well to be wary of ahead of the opening Test at Edgbaston. From 17 Test tours to England (including the one-off inaugural Test in 1932) till date, India have lost the first Test 13 times, and won only once. Not surprisingly, all three of India’s series wins were achieved when they did not lose the first Test.

India played their first ever Test at Lord’s in 1932, and impressed in defeat. Fast bowler Mohammad Nissar gave England cause for concern early on, dismissing the illustrious opening pair of Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe with only 11 runs on the board. Soon after, Frank Woolley was run out, and on their first day of Test cricket, the Indians had reduced the mighty English to 19/3. Nissar (5/93) and his fellow paceman Ladha Amar Singh had their tails up.

But this was as good as it got for India. Skipper Douglas Jardine (79) staged a recovery towards a total of 259, which was enough for a lead of 70, and eventually, a 158-run victory. Thus began a trend of India losing their first Test on English tours. As is usually the case in demanding overseas series, it is extremely difficult to bounce back after being 1-0 down, especially in short three-Test affairs. In 1936, India embarked upon their first three-Test series in England.

The first Test was at Lord’s again, and once again, the Indians showed mettle; in fact, they even gained a lead of 13 despite being bowled out for 147. Nissar and Amar Singh shared nine wickets, the latter finishing with a haul of 6/35, which remained the best figures by an Indian at Lord’s until 2014. However, India caved for just 93 in the second innings (Gubby Allen took his second five-wicket haul of the game) to ease England’s path to a nine-wicket win.

The wrong-footed starts continued over the next 31 years, with India suffering sizeable opening defeats in each of their four series in this period. In 1946, Alec Bedser’s 11 wickets at Lord’s served a ten-wicket pasting. In 1952, at Headingley, England reduced India to 0/4 in the second dig before winning by seven wickets. In 1959, India went down by an innings and 59 runs at Trent Bridge - the harbinger of a 5-0 whitewash. In 1967, it was a six-wicket loss at Headingley.

The 1971 series was the first that saw India avoid defeat in the opening contest. Chasing 183 for victory in a closely-fought Test at Lord’s, Ajit Wadekar’s men ended at 145/8. They went on to clinch the decider at The Oval to win their first series in England. If 1971 was an unprecedented high, 1974 was akin to a nightmare, as India crashed to a 3-0 defeat in the three-Test series. The first Test saw them lose by 113 runs, which was succeeded by a couple of heavy innings defeats.

The summer of 1979 saw another insipid Indian performance in the series’ first Test, this time a chastening loss by an innings and 83 runs at Edgbaston. The first Test in 1982, at Lord’s, was only a tad better, resulting in a seven-wicket defeat. But the triumph in 1986 was a sharp contrast to these reversals, as it remains the only series in England where India won the first Test - by five wickets at Lord’s. The 2-0 series win has been India’s most comprehensive success in England.

The positive start in 1986 proved to be an aberration though, as India’s opening-Test dejection resurfaced on their next three tours. Graham Gooch’s 333 at Lord’s handed the Indians a 247-run defeat in 1990, while a facile eight-wicket win at Edgbaston did the trick for England in 1996. These were the only games to end in a result in the respective three-Test rubbers. In 2002, India began with a 170-run defeat at Lord’s, but fought back well to draw the four-match series 1-1.

The third instance of India avoiding defeat in the first Test of an England tour came in 2007, when they hung on for a draw at Lord’s. Facing an improbable target of 380, India lost their ninth wicket with around five overs still remaining. It was MS Dhoni who thwarted England’s victory bid, curbing his attacking instincts to remain unbeaten on 76. As was the case in 1971 and 1986, India converted the rare defeatless start into a series win, this time by a margin of 1-0.

In 2011, Dhoni was at the helm, and things went pear-shaped for India from the first day of the series itself. Strike pacer Zaheer Khan was looking in his element, having taken 2/18 to give the visitors a promising start at Lord’s, when he suffered a hamstring injury that ruled him out from the rest of the series. Kevin Pietersen clubbed 202*, and despite the first of Rahul Dravid’s three centuries in the series, India lost by 196 runs. A rampant England cruised to a 4-0 clean sweep.

The 2014 series was India’s first five-match rubber in England since 1959, and following a draw in the first Test, things were looking optimistic - never had India not won a Test series in England after winning or drawing the first Test. In a high-scoring battle on a flat pitch at Trent Bridge, India ceded a lead of 39 before overcoming a few jitters on the final day. India’s prospects further brightened after a solid display led to a 95-run win in the second Test at Lord’s.  

However, it all went downhill thereafter. Fast bowler Ishant Sharma, who had rattled England with 7/74 in the fourth innings at Lord’s, had his series ended by an ankle injury on the eve of the third Test. India failed to capitalize on their 1-0 lead after two Tests, and abjectly lost the last three Tests - the margins of defeat getting progressively worse - to surrender the series 3-1, culminating in a three-day mauling by an innings and 244 runs in the fifth Test at The Oval.

India go into the Edgbaston Test - a milestone match, it being England’s 1,000th Test - as the world’s top-ranked Test team. Back in 2011 too, India were the holders of the Test mace at the start of the series, and the first Test was a milestone match - the 2,000th Test of all time as well as the 100th between the two countries.
Will it be a case of déjà vu for India? Or will they keep their first-Test blues at bay and start the series on a strong note?

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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