Playing a tour game ahead of any Test series was the norm before, with the world in the right order. But ever since the pandemic, most of the teams have been forced to prepare for any series with intra-squad games instead, something that India were also subject to, ahead of the WTC finale.
However, we all know that went pretty badly, with the players finding it hard to adapt to the conditions, which ultimately resulted in a loss for India. No wonder Virat Kohli had emphasized the importance of a warm-up game ahead of the five-match Test series against England. And his demands hardly go unanswered. India got to play a practice game against the County XI side, and it provided a thorough practice even if we take the largely flat pitch and the level of players in the three-day game into consideration.
The Indian bowlers were finding it hard to find the right line and lengths in the WTC finale due to a lack of match practice, but in the warm-up game, all of Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj and Ravindra Jadeja got at least 15 overs under their belt, which bodes well for the side. Let's take a look at the main takeaways for India from three-day affair.
Agarwal-Pujara do well.......but still far from enough
A flat pitch and an inexperienced bowling attack which got further weakened with Avesh Khan's injury - it was an open invitation for the Indian batting line-up to pile up runs and bolster their confidence. And nobody needed it more than Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara. Agarwal, since he's likely to replace Shubman Gill, though, despite his presence, the team management wanted back-up openers. For Pujara, he has also been struggling for form, averaging a meagre 30.33 in 2021, which goes further down to 28.03 in the World Test Championship cycle.
Now, Mayank Agarwal was ultra-aggressive and looked confident enough in both the innings, getting 28 and 47, yet he threw it away. His first-innings dismissal mirrored his Down Under horrors. He was late on the ball and couldn't bring down his bat from a high backlift with the Duke ball smashing his stumps. While in the second innings, after some beautiful drives and cuts and looking set for a big one, he again threw it away, trying to take Jack Carson to the cleaners. The right-hander couldn't get a big knock against a relatively weak bowling attack on a good batting pitch, which doesn't present a rosy picture.
Pujara also continued to disappoint as he made 21 and 38 and failed to convert starts. It was a golden opportunity for him as his place is supposedly in danger after the WTC finale. But the game only added to his woes, if anything, given such scores won't give much confidence to the team management. Worst of all, he was stumped in the first innings, which was only the second such instance in his professional career. In the second gig, after starting quickly, he again got out to the spin of Jack Carson, which isn't a good sign as it shows his dwindling confidence with the bat, due to him historically being a beast against spinners, given he averages a whopping 66.3 against them in Tests.
With a ton, KL Rahul makes it hard to ignore him
The world has seen KL Rahul 2.0 in white-all cricket as he finally translated his class into consistent displays for India. And while the likes of Agarwal and Pujara failed to make much of an impression in the warm-up game, Rahul made sure to grab the golden opportunity with both his hands. Playing his first red-ball first-class game since March 2020, the Karnataka batsman batted with confidence and temperament, something he has symbolized in white-ball cricket of late. But, the best part about his century was that it came during a time when India were in a spot at 67-3, with the top-order starting poorly in the first innings.
Rahul, who had scored a century in his last appearance in a Test in England, and also in the intra-squad game before the WTC finale, continued his fine run in the country, making 101* off 150 deliveries. He was particularly dismissive against spin, using his feet well. But at the same time, he didn't allow pacers to get away with anything short. Rahul's technique also looked very tight. The 29 years old was playing close to his body, the soft hands were at play, and he didn't mind coming on the top of the ball while his footwork remained sleek.
Given Rahul's power-packed performance and an average show from Agarwal and Pujara, there's a strong case to include him in the side for the first Test. It might be as an opener, or at 3, or maybe in place of Ajinkya Rahane if he fails to recover from his fitness concerns, but the flamboyant batsman should play now, if ever in red-ball cricket. Also, it would be better to play either Pujara or Agarwal and not both together on the same side.
Jadeja proving to be a better bet than Vihari as batsman
Ravindra Jadeja has evolved a lot as a batsman over the years. In the last three years, he has averaged 52.60 with the willow in hand. In the warm-up game too, he was the second most impressive batsman in the Indian line-up, with scores of 75 and 51*. While in the second innings, he still came in a situation when India were sailing through with the bat, it was quite opposite in the first innings. India were reduced to 107 for 4 when he came to the middle, with most of the batters putting up a poor show.
But Jadeja showcased the temperament of a proper batsman, someone who's ready to put his head down, trust his defence, play out the bowlers, believe in his technique, and, most importantly, deliver with runs. Even in the WTC final, he was impressive and made a strong case for batting higher up the order. With Hanuma Vihari, he has this tendency of throwing away his starts in Test cricket. He averages a mediocre 32.84. In the first innings, in trademark manner, Vihari, after making a well-made 24, threw away his wicket and failed to get a big knock under his belt. In the second innings, he scored an unbeaten 43, but Jadeja easily out batted him in the game.
Jadeja is comfortably more experienced of the two, be it in Tests or when it comes to playing in England. He's at the peak of his powers, and it's about the time when India starts looking at him as a specialist batter, in case he doesn't make it to the XI as an all-rounder. The practice game was a good exhibition of the same. Keep calm, trust Jadeja, and he will come good.
Umesh Yadav makes his presence felt
Of all the front line Indian pacers in this game - Bumrah, Siraj, Shardul and Umesh - it won't be wrong to say that there was least interest around Umesh Yadav. It has a lot to do with his home and away displays, but also the rise of Mohammed Siraj has played its part. Not to forget, Shardul Thakur, with his ability to move the ball and his usefulness lower down the order, has made himself a better package.
However, as it turned out, Umesh Yadav was the most impressive bowler from the Indian side in the game. On day two, India used Yadav for a spell of five overs each before and after lunch, and he was on song right away. He moved the ball away sharply and brought his expertise of bowling in home conditions by targeting the stumps and making the batsmen play, something that's needed in the sub-continent. There have been many times when Umesh has looked confused in overseas tours, but not in this game, as he played to his strengths and made the batters dance to his tunes.
Two of the three scalps he took were batters getting cleaned up, which is a testimony of his effort to make the batters play. The wicket of the County XI's skipper Will Rhodes stood out in the game and was played on a loop by fans, given how beautifully he sent Rhodes' off-stump for a cartwheel. He finished with figures of 3/22 in the first innings, with more wickets and a better ER (1.5) than anyone else. With his experience, form and wicket-taking ability, Yadav has reminded the team management that he's still there and raring to go.