Seventeen days ago, a spirited India won their first Test away from home in three years at Lord’s to draw first blood in this five-match series against England.
After the first day of the fourth Test between the two teams at Manchester, it seems more like 17 years.
For all of India’s will and application shown at Lord’s, the next six days of Test cricket have been abysmally poor. If the loss at Southampton could be blamed on losing a good toss, India have no such excuses to offer at Manchester.
Given that the pitch at Old Trafford is the fastest seen in this series so far, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was at an advantage when he called correctly at the toss and opted to bat.
For all the pace in the track and nip in the air due to overcast conditions, there are no two ways about the fact that it was a don’t-bat-last pitch.
When Dhoni backed his positivity at the toss by announcing as many as three equally encouraging team changes—with opener Gautam Gambhir replacing Shikhar Dhawan at the top, Ravichandran Ashwin coming in for the extra batsman Rohit Sharma and Varun Aaron getting a first game at the cost of Mohammad Shami—you couldn't help but feel that India meant business.
Nineteen deliveries later, pop went the optimism, cruelly bulldozed by the experience and skill of James Anderson and Stuart Broad in conditions that couldn't have been more ideal for them.
And so, instead of the Indian team finding its way into a new resurgence away from home, the ensuing collapse from 8-0 to 8-4 instead rekindled old, painful memories of similar disintegration on these shores in 1952 and 1974.
The only person that prevented an outright humiliation was the skipper, Dhoni (71 off 133 balls), who played one of his best and grittiest innings away from home to take India past 150, with some help from Ajinkya Rahane (24) and Ashwin (40)—the only two other batsmen to cross over to double figures.
In an innings riddled with six ducks—which equaled the Test record—Dhoni not only showed why he had decided to bat first on this track but also how to bat on it.
In no way was it a fluent and graceful knock. Nine of his 15 boundaries were scored in the third man/point region. His waltzes down the track and swipes outside off-stump to the quicks showed his suicidal tendencies. The amount of blows his body willfully embraced aggravated his masochistic character.
It wasn't pretty, but it was a brave knock—the true definition of a captain’s innings.
However, Dhoni’s heroics were not enough to save India the blushes of losing 16 consecutive sessions since that glorious fifth afternoon at Lord’s.
While a lot was not expected from India’s inexperienced bowling line-up in this series, the famed Indian batting arsenal was supposed to perform a lot better than dishing up three ducks in the top four.
Their middle-order linchpins in Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have so far been bowled over as easily as a bowling pin, considering the reputations that they brought with them into this series.
However, before the batsmen can think about making amends in the second innings, they will be hoping their bowlers discover their form quicker and give them a feasible deficit to chase and overtake.
If England’s lead crosses 150, India can kiss goodbye to the match and the series. If the visitors do not want to go to the Oval down 2-1, it is absolutely imperative that they win all three sessions on Friday, for a start.
And while that majorly depends on how the Indian bowlers find their rhythm and accuracy and learn from their opponents, the reins are in the hands of only one man.
Dhoni has copped a lot of criticism in his career for his conservative approach and tactics, which were on full display as recently as the Southampton Test.
A deja vu of leg theory and leg-side fields for the bowlers might slow England down, but it isn't going to halt them. It isn't going to get India anywhere near winning a session.
The way Dhoni approaches Day 2 with managing his bowling and fielding resources will determine the path this series will take. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Varun Aaron showed in the evening session that this pitch will still have a lot to offer for attacking bowling as the match progresses.
India have no choice but to go on the offensive in all departments. While the batsmen and bowlers have their work cut out, the fielders—especially the slip cordon—need to find a way to get the ball to stick to their palms, like their counterparts have so successfully managed.
England have been faultless for six days and deserve their pedestal in this series. India can begin with three sessions on Friday.