India vs West Indies 1st Test: Carved open in opening session
India vs West Indies 1st Test: Pacers Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel leave India tottering at 25/3 before Rahul, Rahane stabilise the innings.
After repeatedly beating KL Rahul’s outside edge in the third over, Kemar Roach stood still in his follow-through, staring at the strip, perhaps wondering how a wicket had eluded him. Even in such a short span, he had pulled enough tricks out of his bag to deserve a scalp or two. Sensing his best bowler could waver — the new Roach is patient, but captains are always a worried lot — Jason Holder shrieked from the slips, “Sniffin’ it (wicket) champ. I’m waiting.”
It was prophetic. In the next over came the nicks and the wickets. Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara edged behind, both succumbing to the new-ball mastery of Roach. Agarwal could have perhaps left the ball, but the threat of the one that comes in sharply induced the split-second indecision, resulting in a stationary back-foot and hard hands feeling for the ball.
The ball that got Pujara was more difficult to negotiate. Closer as it was to the stumps, it drew him into the forward defensive and moved away marginally. Pujara could not but edge it. The wicket didn’t come without a set-up, though. Roach had ruffled him straightaway, with a back of a length delivery that leapt off into his body, before resuming with the away-going service.
Roach doesn’t quite swing the ball outwards, he rather seams it — or makes it straighten — off the pitch. If he wants to add a dramatic effect to the movement, he goes wider off the crease, looking to fool the batsman with the angle.
Crease utilisation is an aspect of Roach’s bowling that he has worked on diligently in his attempts restore his career. Since his comeback in 2016, Roach has been a changed bowler. He is not the stormy petrel of his youthful days, when he looked to hurt as much as harass the batsmen. He once famously struck on the helmet when the latter was trying to execute his pet pull shot on a lightening fast surface in Perth. A lot of Australians believe Ponting was never again a merciless puller of the cricket ball after that incident in 2009.
But these days, a reformed and refined bowler in his own estimation, Roach no longer paints a target on batsmen’s heads and helmets. Rather he rejoices killing them softly, keener to test their patience, torment their technique and gnaw away at their confidence. He relentlessly pounds the corridor, subtly alters his lengths and lines. He seldom bowls too short or full, and rarely does he veer towards the batsmen’s legs or even the middle stump.
He also masterfully detects batsmen’s vulnerabilities. To Agarwal, who is disciplined outside the off-stump, he bowled closer to the off-stump, making him play more strokes. To Rahul, who’s keener to play more strokes, he bowled a feet further, a clever ploy as Rahul also tends to play away from the body.
These methods have made him an elite but unsung bowler in contemporary cricket. In his last 17 games, he has picked up his 64 wickets at 20.73. At home, he has been an even more potent force, taking 31 scalps at 15.3. Since the start of the year, he has picked up 20 wickets in just four matches, fashioning a terrific series win against England and furnishing the hosts with a dream start against India.
In Shannon Gabriel, he has the perfect new-ball ally — strapping like the heyday bowling giants from the Caribbean and blasting the back-of-length with a cold-eyed, unsmiling strut. Though not consistent, he gets unnerving bounce from awkward lengths. It was the bounce that accounted for , leaving India languishing at 25 for three. Kohli thought he could ride the bounce and pierce the gap between slip and gully. But it was Gabriel’s heavy ball, and it rose more than the Indian skipper had anticipated. It was a testament to Gabriel’s skills, for Kohli doesn’t often misjudge the bounce.
Together, with three wickets in the first hour, including the prized ones of Pujara and Kohli, Roach and Gabriel justified Holder’s decision to bowl first, though the home team’s captain would have been happier with a wicket or two more, as the blazing sun seems to have sucked out the early moisture and the pitch eased up. But Rahul’s dismissal, an hour after lunch, stalled India’s resurrection bid.
Complementing their bowlers, the fielders sustained the intensity, flinging their bodies around, cutting out the release shots, encouraging the bowlers and illustrating a sense of urgency that has often eluded them in the past. In opening session of the first Test, Windies hardly put a foot wrong.