India and Virat Kohli could not have scripted day one of the Jamaica Test any better: the visitors lost an important toss, but West Indies’ slightly eccentric thinking saw India be provided with an ‘opportunity’ to harness the bowling-friendly conditions. So, firstly, West Indies’ decision to bat first was an ‘opportunity’ lost, as the Jamaica pitch had enough juice in it and could have been taken full advantage of by the hosts, who brought in a specialist bowler (Miguel Cummins) for a bowling all-rounder (Carlos Brathwaite).
“After Ishant’s opening spell, the ball stopped swinging and seaming and the pitch did flatten out, which is why the West Indies could and should probably have taken full advantage of the change in playing conditions after the first hour”
On a benign Antigua pitch, the West Indies batsmen had failed so miserably that they could not manage 250 runs in either of their innings. Therefore, batting on a juicy and far more lively Jamaica pitch was always going to be a tall order. Now, Ravichandran Ashwin picked up his 18th five-wicket haul of his 34-Test career and dismissed Jermaine Blackwood and Marlon Samuels at crucial stages on the first day of the Jamaica Test. But the most crucial spell was delivered by an Indian bowler who gets chided too much and harshly on a lot of occasions. Can you guess the bowler in question? Well… Ishant Sharma is the man I am talking about, or, let us say, I am going to rave about!
Ishant was a bowler reborn on day one at the Sabina Park. The length he bowled in his opening spell was stupendous and the fact of the matter was, none of West Indies’ top four batsmen had an answer to Ishant’s incisive inswingers and deliveries which were at least a couple of metres fuller than Ishant’s inherent length. He dismissed Kraigg Brathwaite with a delivery which rose sharply from a good length; improvised quite magnificently to have Darren Bravo caught at slip, by Kohli, from around the wicket and with a delivery which straightened after pitching; and Samuels was a disconcerted presence in the middle during the initial phase of his innings – when he had to face up to Ishant Sharma most of the time. All of these events made for intriguing viewing from the visitors’ perspective, but we also could not forget the ‘opportunity’ passed up by the West Indies, who could well have done this to the Indian batsmen, instead of being on the receiving end of such hostile fast bowling.
K Brathwaite and Darren Bravo were dismissed off successive Ishant deliveries in the third over of the innings and West Indies had been reduced to 4-2. The situation worsened a couple of overs later when Rajendra Chandrika unnecessarily poked at a unharmful Mohammed Shami delivery which pitched short of a good length and seamed away a touch. 4-2 soon became 7-3 inside the first half-hour and no one knew about the severity of the repercussions West Indies’ decision to bat first could have. Blackwood’s arrival offered even more exciting viewing and the Indians finally had a challenge to rise up to!
Blackwood had the temerity and clarity in thought to allow his hands and bat to come down freely on the ball: a simple technique which brought the 24-year old plenty of reward – in the form of runs – and made the likes of Darren Bravo, Chandrika and K Brathwaite look silly, as their indecisiveness, more than their batting techniques, was what caused their downfall. Blackwood, who had accrued a pair in Antigua, did show a few nerves and his feelings were vindicated by his decision to leave the second delivery he faced (bowled by Shami), which pitched well in line with the stumps and, thankfully for the right-hander, bounced just high enough to go over the stumps and not clip the bails. Blackwood, though, opened his scoring with a boundary and his ultra-positive approach did not change throughout his innings of 62 (62).
The 24-year old Blackwood played audaciously and by doing so, had rescued the West Indies innings, which was in dire straits when he joined Samuels in the sixth over. But at a very crucial stage of the first day’s play and West Indies innings, Blackwood was dismissed by Ashwin and just when I felt that the first session spoils were shared, Blackwood’s dismissal handed India an enormous advantage. Ashwin’s delivery was a conventional off-spin which pitched outside off-stump and spun into Blackwood, who was a touch lazy and missed the ball. His laziness was probably a result of his mindset, which was to remain undefeated at lunch on day one and therefore, just defend. Even if he had played an aggressive shot, Blackwood might well have had his wish to walk into the dressing room at 62*, but are you able to understand how a slight change in mentality and thinking can bring about a batsman’s downfall? He was hit on the pads and Aleem Dar’s ruling was marginal, as hawk-eye suggested that the ball might well have just clipped the ‘outside of the leg-stump’. But Blackwood had made an error in judgment and also the way he approached the final few deliveries before lunch, and Ashwin reaped his reward for being patient and flighting his deliveries – which we seldom see spinners do in this age of Twenty20 (T20) cricket.
Samuels, who had played second fiddle to Blackwood and within himself, began to open up and play a few strokes following the youngster’s dismissal. Ashwin, though, had the measure of the home boy – like he did in the second innings of the Antigua Test – and dismissed him with a classical off-spinner’s delivery. Samuels stepped down and looked to hit Ashwin straight down the ground, but the drift and dip the Tamil Nadu offie was able to get, tied Samuels down and he tentatively pushed at the ball which clipped the inside edge of his bat and ballooned up in the air, only to be caught by Lokesh Rahul at short-leg.
The 10th wicket partnership between Miguel Cummins and Shannon Gabriel, who came together with their team’s score on 158-9, looked likely to take West Indies past 200, but 196 was all they could manage. We cannot overlook ‘what might have been’ if Blackwood and Samuels had produced substantial knocks. Because after Ishant’s opening spell, the ball stopped swinging and seaming and the pitch did flatten out, which is why the West Indies could and should probably have taken full advantage of the change in playing conditions after the first hour.
In order to acquire an even better understanding, we do not have to look any further than the run-rate of the Samuels-Blackwood partnership and also the number of boundaries which were hit: this duo took just 122 balls to score 81 – meaning they scored at four runs an over – and 62 of those runs scored by this partnership came in fours and sixes. In fact, despite West Indies being bowled out for 196, 322 runs (a run-rate of almost 3.60 runs/over) went on to be scored on the opening day of the Jamaica Test and India, who reached 126-1 at stumps, are in an utterly dominant position. And, with the pitch expected to become even better for batting on days two and three, you cannot help but acknowledge the fact that West Indies have missed an ‘opportunity’ which India will look to capitalise on by batting for as long as possible and posting a huge total on the board.
The first hour on day two of the Jamaica Test will provide the West Indies bowlers with another ‘opportunity’ to bring their side back into the game and curb India from running away with it. And, having fallen behind the eight ball already, West Indies can ill afford any more mistakes and lost ‘opportunities’, if they want to make a match out of the second West Indies v India 2016 Test. What will also be interesting to see on day two is whether West Indies can finally to put up a fight, having played meekly on all five days of the Test series against India so far.