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Cricket news - Roach, Holder combine to keep India in check
In the pre-match press conference, West Indies skipper Jason Holder demurred when he was asked about the nature of the Antigua pitch and what his decision would be if he were to win the toss. He related to how his side performed when they chose to bowl first against England in February earlier this year, and in a sort of round about way, indicated that he would want to bowl first.
Having picked a four man seam attack of Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, late injury replacement Miguel Cummins and Holder himself, it was imperative that West Indies won the toss and do as much damage to the Indian batting order as possible, as the wicket did not bear as green a look as it did when the English were routed. This approach provided the best pathway for West Indies to victory: dismiss India cheaply, bat on a flattening wicket, and with deterioration and scoreboard pressure, bowl India out a second time.
The first piece of the puzzle worked perfectly; Virat Kohli called wrong at the flip of the coin and Holder had no hesitation in sending India in. Now came the hard part; the opening bowlers needed to hit the right lengths and lines, and challenge the unsettled Indian opening pair and expose the meat of India's middle order to a ball that was still doing something.
There was no extravagant swing even as the start of the Test was delayed due to a passing tropical shower and there was some cloud cover. There was some early moisture underfoot, and some dry grass patches, which made the pitch a "bit tricky" and "spongy" according to Ajinkya Rahane and debutant Shamarh Brooks. The skill of Roach came to the fore as he began interrogating the Indian openers on both edges of the bat from the very first delivery.
Roach caused indecision in players' minds by naturally angling the ball in, and also moving it away off the seam. Batsmen couldn't just play the line of the ball, they had to also protect their outside edge, and this made KL Rahul tentative early on: to let go or offer a bat to it?
While Gabriel is the quickest of the West Indian pacers, he also tends to be erratic, occasionally. Today was one such day. While he whizzed a delivery past Rahul's outside edge in his first over, it was a mixed bag of deliveries that he sent down in his first spell of five overs: some pitching halfway down, some full looking for late inswing, some so wide they wouldn't have hit a second set of stumps, and some thudding in to batsmen.
Roach continued his spell, sticking to the length that did not make the choice of coming forward or staying back easy for the batsmen, and it was one such delivery that caught Mayank Agarwal in two minds; stuck to the crease, defending the delivery that kissed the outside edge.
India's mainstay and man of the series in Australia, Cheteshwar Pujara, strode out as Umpire Richard Kettleborough had to overturn his decision to give Agarwal his marching orders. Pujara would have looked forward to a long stay at the wicket, donning national colours after a gap of more than seven months, but Roach ensured no such thing would transpire.
A quick bouncer that hit the evading Pujara was followed by two full deliveries; the fourth pitched on a good length drew Pujara forward, only to seam away while taking the outside edge of the hopelessly dangling bat. India were two down with next to nothing on the board, and Roach by himself had vindicated Holder's decision at the toss.
Gabriel was a tad fortunate to have picked up the wicket of Kohli, as the Indian maestro could not place the square cut as he intended - finding Brooks at gully. Even as India were wobbling at 32 for 3 when the two opening bowlers were given a break, it was obvious who was responsible for it. When facing Roach, Indian batsmen were only in control of 18 of the 30 deliveries.
As Rahane and Rahul went about rebuilding the innings, the pitch had begun to lose its bite. Holder had said pre-match that he felt he had "done [his] preparations" and "needs to continue what [he's] been doing in the past, and just bowl long spells as a seamer." He chose himself to be the end that would be restrictive and delivered seven maidens in his first eleven overs, while keeping the batsmen honest by generating good bounce from a progressively docile track.
Even as Rahul departed to a leg side strangle off Roston Chase's part-time spin, Hanuma Vihari and Rahane batted serenely to accumulate 82 runs in a partnership that lasted more than 30 overs. Roach, bowling his third spell, once again caused indecision in the mind of the batsman, Vihari - chosen ahead of Rohit Sharma and batting on 32 - who tried defending on the backfoot as the seaming delivery took the edge to give Wicket Keeper Shai Hope his fourth catch of the day.
Gabriel benefited from another piece of fortune as Rahane's attempted push a delivery wide of the stumps to cover with an angled bat, found the inside edge and the stumps. Cummins was unimpressive in his return to the side with figures of 0-45 in 10 overs.
Brooks thought that it was a "much better batting wicket" at the end of rain-shortened first day's play after the early seam movement, and "it's a plus" that they picked up six wickets. The credit for it must go mainly to Roach's skilful exploitation of whatever little assistance that was there in the pitch (3-34 in 17 overs) and Holder's dry-one-end-up job (9 maidens in 15 overs). West Indies could have easily ended up with eggs on their faces inserting the opposition in on this pitch, but the 54-Tests veteran from Barbados has made sure the home side is in with a real good chance of repeating the events of February.
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