It was the 165th over of England’s innings, deep after tea on day two in Chennai. Washington Sundar bowled a fine off spinner, which elicited Jos Buttler’s outside edge, prompting the sort of jubilation from a fielding team when they feel that what they deserve is long overdue.
Alas, one Indian was not convinced: umpire Anil Chaudhary, who ruled that Buttler was not-out, missing his clear edge. India had no reviews left. Washington’s next delivery was over-pitched and promptly lashed to the boundary for four, bringing up England’s 500. For India, this was not the grand homecoming envisaged after their epic heist in Australia.
India’s misfortune in Chepauk had begun before the toss. The absences of Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja deprived India of their best fast bowler and best spinner at home in recent years. Without Jadeja, India had planned to hand Axar Patel a Test debut, hoping that he could reprise a similar role. The day before the series, Patel suffered a knee injury, forcing India to recalibrate their plans again. If Brisbane - when India won after selecting an injury-ravaged attack with 13 Test wickets between them, to Australia’s 1033 - showed that India’s depth is stronger than ever, this could not conceal that India took the field with an attack considerably depleted from the most potent possible.
Misfortune was compounded by a curious caution in India’s team selection. In Kuldeep Yadav, India have a cricketer as rare as a Faberge egg: a left-arm wrist spinner. Three members of England’s top six in Chennai - Dom Sibley, Rory Burns and Dan Lawrence - have never faced a left-arm wrist spinner in first-class cricket before.
Kuldeep has already showed his penchant for befuddling England batsmen. The first time he played England in a T20 international, he took 5-24; the first time he played them in a one-day international, he snared 6-25.
The unrelenting excellence of Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, who also contribute far more with the bat, has limited Kuldeep to six Test matches. Yet he has still provided ample evidence that his beguiling bowling can transfer to the longest format: his nascent Test career has so far brought 24 wickets at 24.1 apiece.
And so to omit Kuldeep, even in the absence of Jadeja, reflected what could be called traditional English thinking: focusing not on what spin bowlers can do, but what they cannot. Though he has a first-class hundred, Kuldeep only averages 8.5 with the bat in Tests. In the classical mode of wrist spinners, he sacrifices economy in pursuit of wickets: Kuldeep concedes 3.5 an over in Tests, and even more in first-class games.
These failings led India to select two other spinners to support Ashwin. Sundar batted terrifically at the Gabba, making 62 and 22 and India have no qualms about batting him at seven; his economy rate in first-class cricket is also 0.75 less than Kuldeep’s. Shahbaz Nadeem, the left-arm orthodox spinner called up after Patel’s injury, has modest batting credentials but a track record of providing control in first-class cricket. Nadeem’s first-class economy rate, 2.70, is almost a whole run an over less than Kuldeep’s 3.65.
But in focusing on these areas, India neglected the best reason to select Kuldeep: he is far more likely to take wickets. In first-class cricket, Kuldeep takes a wicket every 50 balls; Washington takes one every 60, and Nadeem one every 64. In Tests, Kuldeep takes a wicket every 42 balls: only seven bowlers ever have taken more wickets at a lower strike rate. To omit Kuldeep was not merely to plump for the less romantic option, but also to pick a side less likely to bowl England out twice.
Washington and Nadeem were selected to provide greater control, but they could not even manage that much. England recognised how sagaciously attacking the two could both be a fertile source of runs and force Virat Kohli to bowl Ashwin more. In 70 overs across the first two days, Washington and Nadeem have returned a combined 2-265, yielding 3.79 an over. When the two were attacked - through Joe Root’s sweep shot and Ben Stokes’s assault on Nadeem - their command of line and length withered. In pristine batting conditions, they lacked the mystery or subtlety to overcome the pitch’s unresponsiveness.
There has been some Indian sloppiness too. Beginning with Rishabh Pant missing Burns to the seventh ball of the game, India’s fielding has not quite matched the standards Kohli’s side expect of themselves; Rohit Sharma’s drop off Dom Bess late on the second day was more the stuff of blooper videos than Test matches. India have also gifted England 19 no balls, including six from Nadeem; not since 2009 have India bowled so many in a Test. But India’s main trio - Ashwin, the indefatigable Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah - have been exemplary in their control, conceding a combined 2.45 an over. The vim and enterprise with which India faced up to a sixth consecutive session in the field by taking four wickets spoke of this attack’s tenacity and skill.
Mostly India’s plight in this match can be explained by the excellence of Root and the realities of the opening days of Test cricket in India: taking wickets is supposed to be hard. That only makes India’s reticence to pick the men most likely to take them all the more curious.