117/6, 250/7, 312/6, 100/0 – India found themselves on the wrong side of things four times at The Oval. With their backs against the wall, the management had placed their trust in Shardul Thakur, who marked his comeback in the series replacing Ishant Sharma.
India had to make a tough choice between Shardul and Ravichandran Ashwin and then, they took a bold call. Twitter gave the team quite an earful, they made Shardul the ‘Lord’ and had found a jolly time for themselves on the first day of the fourth Test.
At 117/6, the fans were more concerned about India not having an off-spinner against the English left-handers instead of hoping for a fight from the tail. And the result, a barrage of shots that would always go down as trade for all the insults on the internet. A glanced pull off James Anderson? Yes! A straight drive? Yes! A pull shot out of The Oval? Yes!
Shardul did not just join the party but he was in fact, the person who started the party. Every one of his shots not only added more runs on the board for India but also kept India in the game, in the series. The last time India were in England, they were punished for not going the final yard but this time, India showed that they learnt to put their best foot in those crucial decisive moments.
It was The Oval, it was in front of a packed crowd but the 29-year-old all-rounder from Palghar was batting like his aim was to mute the crowd and the sledges. He was batting as if he was playing backyard cricket with his friends. A crackle, a sizzle and a lot of dazzle, Shardul was pressing a bigger case for himself, to be noticed.
A half-century in Australia, at the Gabba was viewed as lucky. And Shardul did go the Michael Jordan way, he took it personally. By the time he exited The Oval, his value had grown multi-fold, like his average had seen a rise in Test cricket. 57 off 36 balls on a day where only one Indian batsman, Virat Kohli had scored a half-century, it was just the start of the Test for him.
"You have to take responsibility whether you are a pacer or a batter. You are playing for India, so whenever you get a chance you have to shoulder responsibility by hook or by crook," Shardul said after first day’s play.
"For me, it was a challenge and whenever I get to bat, I have to create such an impact that it opens the door for my team's victory. Pretty happy getting so much love from teammates that they want to call me by a certain nickname (Beefy)," he smiled.
250/7, England were in pole position to at least get a three-figure lead at The Oval, in a venue where Ollie Pope has had invincible statistics and crowd support. India find themselves in a real tough spot here, the English tail is as waggy as the Indian tail from the first innings. Chris Woakes and Pope have already put up a 28-run partnership.
The wicket seems to have nothing on offer, where does Virat Kohli turn to? Say no more, it is Thakur with the wicket of Pope, with a delivery that swung away enough to catch the inside edge. 15 overs, 2 maidens, 54 runs and just one wicket, his impact wasn’t quite enough. At least quite enough for the fans to stop mocking him on Twitter.
And he continued.
At 312/6, India already had a lead of 213 runs in the Test but 213 runs on a batting surface seemed too less, as rightfully pointed out in the commentary box by Michael Holding. It wasn’t turning enough, it wasn’t seaming evidently and certainly, it wasn’t moving an inch. England knew they were in trouble but still sniffed victory, owing to how the conditions had panned out at the Oval.
The past year’s glory against Pakistan, the 2019 Ashes win in Headingley served certainly as an inspiration for the English dreams. But they hadn’t quite estimated the genius of Shardul. Having been hurt at the wrong places in the first innings, no side would dare commit the same mistake again.
But such as been the year for England that they had to undergo the same treatment yet again but only this time, louder and in the most classical of ways. The 29-year-old jabbed one straight down the ground before slamming one through the covers. He then knocked one over cover point, one inside out against IPL teammate Moeen Ali.
England had already witnessed every version of it on day one yet they found no answers to the question that the all-rounder posed. While the English fans were certainly bored of the sight of Shardul, he wasn’t done, not until he followed a six with two more boundaries.
The Barmy Army went back to the familiar tunes of “Hey Root,” as the English skipper rolled his arm over. And he immediately struck to send back Shardul but the Indian all-rounder had struck a bigger chord, with the Indian fans. Maybe when England visit India the next time, there would be ‘Hey Thakur,’ all around the ground.
Certainly, has a nice ring to it. He exited after topping his first innings total, with a 60 here in the second innings. Even his FC batting average (17.39) could not quite comprehend with his Test batting average (38), they came from the same man – Shardul.
England just put up their first hundred-run opening wicket partnership in a long time. Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed were tittle-tattling with the Indian bowlers very nicely. They seemed to be in a jolly good mood, the Indian bowlers were in a similar mood but there could be only one winner.
And Kohli then introduced the all-rounder Shardul into the attack. He was viewed as damage control in other formats and in Tests, as a golden hand, at least after the Gabba Test. The high-hopes of his batting certainly came with expectations with the ball.
Immediately, he struck not just a chord with the fans but with the vital wicket of Rory Burns with a delivery that stood out only to be bested later by Jasprit Bumrah. His second wicket, Joe Root, left the English skipper and the home fans in disarray.
As India had wrapped up a famous win, at The Oval, Kohli had just pleasing words for the all-rounder, who fit right in the team’s dynamics after Hardik Pandya’s long absence.
“Shardul's fifty was the difference and a counterattack in the second innings. They were looking to restrict us but he was outstanding.” Even at the expense of his performance, social media showed no mercy, morphing his pace on a wide range of characters – from The Hulk to Baahubali to the dead man Undertaker.
But at the end of the day, Shardul stood miles away as one of India’s own, putting on a show that had both substance and swag in the same line.