When Englishman Alfred Shaw bowled the first ball of a cricket match to Australian Charles Bannerman little did he know that he was playing a very important role in the history of the game. The match between the two old foes of cricket, that eventually went Australia's way, was christened as a 'Test' match, paving the way for two thousand plus matches in that format which has remained for a hundred and forty-one years.
Shaw may not have realised how significant his act was in 1877 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground as much as Umesh Yadav must have when he ran up to bowl the first ball in the opening Test for India to England opener Alastair Cook who was facing the opening delivery of his countries thousandth Test match at Edgbaston.
For Yadav, the significance may not be historical (being part of the opposition's 1,000th Test) but performance led, tinged with the nervousness of starting the first act of a much awaited and much spoken about series. Reams have been written about the five Test encounter between the India, the number one Test side in the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings and hosts England who stand at number five.
No matter how well one does in the shorter formats of the game — One Day Internationals (ODI) and Twenty20 (T20) — yhe true worth of a cricketer and a team is always judged by performances in the long format — Test cricket. This is the format that examines how good a player/team is over five days with the atmosphere and conditions differing, rather drastically in some countries, from day to day.
India's challenge at Edgbaston, where they have never won a Test match and England facing its 1,000th Test apart, the series opener has brought into focus two players from each team for different reasons — Cheteshwar Pujara and Adil Rashid. The former dropped from the Indian team after being its mainstay (mostly at number three) for 58 Tests since his debut in 2010 while the latter being picked to play the longer format after having accepted a contract with his county only to play the short formats with the white ball.
Whatever Indian skipper Virat Kohli's detractors may say at the end of the first Test match, prima facie, he seems to have made the correct decision of picking (the relatively in-form) KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, instead of Pujara. The skipper and team management were faced with the uncomfortable dilemma of picking the right combination to open the innings and to select between Pujara, Rahul and Dhawan.
At the pre-match press conference, the skipper gave a reasoning of his strategy of picking the team for the impending Test. He stated that he (and the team management) would purely go by gut feeling and not look back whether the decision taken would be right or not. What Kohli emphasised on was that they were looking at the right balance for the team.
What he left unsaid was that (for him and the team management) form and how the player 'feels' would play a more important role in picking teams rather than past glories. Over the past few years, we have seen India go without the experienced Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the shorter formats of the game and put their spin department on the young, inexperienced shoulders of Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and Axar Patel.
For most experts that will question the team managements decision to play Dhawan (who got a pair in the warm up game against Essex) at the cost of Pujara, the answer would lie in their strategy employed for the first Test. Play a left-right opening combination of Dhawan and Murali Vijay that has given India many successful starts, putting a punt on Dhawan to disturb the experienced English new ball combination of James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Dhawan, who scored a hundred in the last Test against Afghanistan, has the experience and ability to put the best of bowlers to the Test with his aggressive brand of batting. He may not be in the destructive league of a Virendra Sehwag but as the stylist VVS Laxman pointed out that Dhawan looked in very good touch in the limited-overs games and must be encouraged to play freely, without the fear of failure as he can take the game away from the opposition very early.
Punts and gut feel notwithstanding, Kohli's decision reiterates his aggressive intent. Irrespective of the result (one writes this on the first day of the Test match), the Indian captain will continue to take such steps if he believes they are in the best interests of the team.
The case of English leg spinner Adil Rashid is different and a bit intriguing. The Yorkshireman, in the form of his life, came under fire when he accepted England's call to play the first Test after a dream spelling the ODI's against India. Rashid had denounced the longer format of the game -- the last red ball match he played was in September 2017 -- and signed a contract to play only the white-ball shorter formats for Yorkshire.
Former England players, Martin Moxon, Micheal Vaughan and Goff Boycott lambasted Rashid and England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for the leg-spinners call for duty for his country. While Moxon, Yorkshire’s director of cricket, showed his ire against the ECB for lack of communication and consultation, Vaughan labelled Rashid's recall to the national team as 'ridiculous.' The maverick Boycott questioned Rashid's loyalty to his county calling him a 'spoilt brat.' All this because Rashid picked country over county -- something the rest of the cricketing world would support.
The decisions of the ECB and the Indian team management just go to show how important this Test series is to both countries. The two teams have decided not to give the opposition an inch of space to try and dictate terms. The India/England five Test encounter may not be labelled as a blue riband series like the Ashes or India versus Pakistan but the approach of both teams just goes to show that this will (hopefully) be a series to remember.
(The writer is a former Cricket Club of India captain and Bombay University cricketer)