Even when millions of Indians were more concerned about women's hockey than cricket for a change, which was historic itself, Virat Kohli's decision to drop Ravichandran Ashwin didn't go under the radar. It shocked one and all when Jadeja and Shardul got the nod ahead of the ace spinner.
Well, that's what Ravichandran Ashwin has earned in 2021. The cult of Ashwin has peaked. Ashwin was an improved bowler even in India's last overseas cycle, but the series against Australia was an exhibition of a wizard. Bring on the Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith challenge, and the Tamil Nadu spinner will have some trick or the other up his sleeve to bamboozle them. And if the team needed him to take blows on his vulnerable body, play out hours against the intense Australian bowling attack, arguably the best in their history, he would walk on that tight rope too.
Then came the home England series, where he hunted the English batters for fun, as if it was a stroll in the park. And then on the same pitch, where he was spitting fire with the ball and turning batting into an impossible task, he put up a batting clinic, scored a hundred and made people rethink what the pitch outrage was about.
The performances continued to come even in the UK, be it against New Zealand in the WTC finale, or his five-wicket haul representing Surrey. After establishing himself as an all-weather, all conditions bowler in 2021, someone at the peak of his powers, transcending everything thrown to bog him down, his axing in the Test series opener came as a rude shock for the Indian fans at large. Not that Virat Kohli and the team management's selection calls have been great either historically. First two Tests in South Africa in 2018 (axing Rahane, dropping Bhuvneshwar in the second Test), the Lord's 2018 blunder (playing two spinners) and playing no spinner in the 2018 Perth Test where Lyon was the Man of the Match were some of the decisions that made him the centre of intense criticism.
However, on day one in Nottingham, all the doubts and apprehensions had vanished by the time the English innings came to a close. The hosts were bundled out for 183, their second-lowest total in the first innings of a home Test series since 1950. Though they were no longer playing in India, the shambolic batting display was hard to differentiate. But that simply doesn't take away the brilliance, skill, discipline, ruthlessness that the Indian bowling unit displayed on a pitch that didn't have exaggerated movement.
It was the magic of a four-man pace attack that did the trick. As if Kohli had unleashed an ace with a poker face. The Indian skipper was apt in his homework. Since 2010, the pacers had taken 86% of wickets at an average of 25.9 while the spinners averaged 49.5 with a below-par strike rate of 82.3% at the venue. With the threat of rain and only one left-hander in England's top seven, the logic was right, but, most importantly, it translated into a fine performance that made it all the more special.
There was a notable difference between India's bowling in the WTC finale against New Zealand in June and the one they exhibited on day one at Trent Bridge. For starters, the Indian spinners had delivered 15 overs of defensive bowling in the first 50 overs against New Zealand. That's the best they have could done also in the first innings in overcast conditions, which was tailor-made for the pacers. In the same number of overs at Trent Bridge, India used just three overs of spin, and an extra pacer in the form of Shardul Thakur exploited the conditions beautifully.
Unlike Hardik Pandya or Ashwin as the fourth bowler, Thakur, a more attacking option in overcast conditions, provided a breather to the Indian quicks but not to the English batters. He consistently tested them with his out-swingers and kept them at their toes. It was precisely the relentlessness that New Zealand had shown in the finale and what India had missed when they fielded three pacers and two spinners. The Mumbaikar wasn't afraid to bowl full-lengths and, most importantly, he struck just when India needed it the most.
With England at 145 for 6, a well-set Joe Root in the middle, and India's familiar foe Sam Curran coming to the crease, the horrors of the past must have resurfaced. So many times the hard work, discipline, toil, ascendency, consistency of the bowlers were thwarted away on India's last tour of England in 2018. Notably, in that series, England's seventh and eighth wicket-stands had a phenomenal combined average of 53.6. Given England's solid lower-order and India's woes against the tail batters in general, they had to pass the test to remain in the ascendency.
But then Shardul Thakur's two-wicket over, where he accounted for a dangerous-looking Root and a promising prospect with the bat for the hosts, Ollie Robinson, consolidated India's position significantly. The seventh and eight-wicket stands could merely add nine runs on the board. A big win for India that might well set up the tone for the series.
The wicket of Joe Root was a classical set-up by Shardul Thakur. The Indian seam-bowling all-rounder, who delivered 45% of his deliveries wide outside the off stump, bowled a nip-backer, which was only one of the three deliveries in the entire day of play from him that would have hit the stumps. It trapped the English skipper in front. It was a massive moment in the game.
After that he got rid of Robinson, with a surprise short-ball in the same over as he played a poor shot. With the two wickets, he ensured that England's consistent lower-order had to do something extra-ordinary to come out of the trouble. Sam Curran tried his best, but things just didn't work out, given the enormity of the task and a much better prepared Indian attack. Thakur, who had played the game amidst much controversy, took off from where he had left in the Gabba Test, further proved his value, and Kohli's decision to field him ahead of R Ashwin.
To sum up India's memorable day and exceptional bowling display, as per CricViz, "Since 2006, there has been only one occasion where any side has matched all of India’s swing, pace, and accuracy from today, in the same innings." But as well as India bowled, the batters will need to drive home the advantage, something that they have lacked and has hurt India in the past.