India keep one eye on away tours with green track in Kolkata


India took 17 Sri Lankan wickets in Kolkata. All 17 went to the pace bowlers. Between them, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav bowled 99 overs across the two innings, while Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin, ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in the ICC Test bowlers' rankings before the game, bowled 10.

This had a lot to do with the conditions at Eden Gardens: grey skies overhead and a green pitch underfoot that went from damp and seaming to cracked and seaming over the course of five rain-interrupted days.

Ever since its square was relaid last year, Eden Gardens has tended to aid seam bowling, but this pitch was so green it raised suspicions in the days leading up to the Test match that India had asked specifically for a green top, in order to prepare for the tour of South Africa that begins in January, and a series of overseas tours thereafter that stretch into the early months of 2019.

KL Rahul confirmed as much in his press conference after bad light had halted India's quicks from bulldozing their way to what could have been one of the team's most thrilling come-from-behind wins.

"Obviously," he said, "it's very clear that we're preparing for the next two years that we're going to travel abroad and play a lot of cricket overseas, and we are going to find wickets like this, and it is going to be challenging for all of us, so we wanted to prepare in that way."

The course India charted through the Test match was not unlike a successful first Test in difficult overseas conditions. There were setbacks in the first innings for both the batsmen - India slipped to 50 for 5 and were eventually bowled out for 172 - and the fast bowlers - Bhuvneshwar admitted at the end of day four that they had perhaps "tried too hard" and "could have been more patient" and restricted Sri Lanka's lead to below 122.

But both did far better second time around. Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan added 166 for the first wicket and Virat Kohli followed up with a century to set Sri Lanka a challenging fourth-innings task: survive a possible 47 overs or chase 231. When fading light came to their rescue with a theoretical 20.3 overs remaining, Sri Lanka were 75 for 7, clinging on by their fingernails as Shami snarled from one end and Bhuvneshwar probed surgically from the other.

Watching this Test match, the teams that lie in wait for India will have found no answers to a question that would have occupied them for a while now. What kind of pitches will actually give them home advantage?

Some of India's overseas wins in the past (Johannesburg 2006, Durban 2010 and Lord's 2014, for example) have come on seaming pitches that narrowed the quality gap between the two pace attacks, the help on offer making up for the deficiencies of India's seamers in other areas, chiefly their inability to bowl long spells without losing either their accuracy or their pace and intensity.

All three members of this India pace attack - and Ishant Sharma, the other quick in the squad - were part of India's last cycle of away tours from December 2013 to January 2015, and all of them impressed in patches while looking ordinary when conditions weren't in their favour.

They have gained far more experience since then, however, and have shown more than once that they can hold their own in conditions where their skills come into sharper focus than those of the spinners. Eden Gardens, 2017, when they made Ashwin and Jadeja seem almost irrelevant, was just the extreme end of the spectrum.

There was the SSC in 2015, where Ishant bowled India to victory on a seaming deck with the Test series locked 1-1. There was Eden once again, at the same time last year, when Bhuvneshwar and Shami, with some help from the spinners, outdid New Zealand's trio of Trent Boult, Matt Henry and Neil Wagner on a different kind of pace-friendly pitch: newly relaid, with a bit of seam and a lot of inconsistent bounce. There was a drier but still up-and-down Bengaluru pitch earlier this year, when Ishant and Umesh showed more discipline than Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood to help India mount a slow-burning comeback from being bowled out for 189 on day one. And two Tests later, on a bouncy Dharamsala pitch that seemed more Australian than Indian, Umesh and Bhuvneshwar blew away Australia's top order in the second innings.

For most part, though, the quicks have been support acts to Ashwin and Jadeja over these last two years, on pitches aiding spin far more than pace. Keep that in mind, then, while going through their numbers since the start of the Sri Lanka tour of 2015. Shami has 45 wickets in 14 Tests at 24.22, Bhuvneshwar - who tends to feature only on seaming pitches - 24 in seven at 17.75, Ishant 31 in 15 at 33.90 and Umesh 54 wickets in 22 Tests at 34.16.

It isn't Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner, but it's the best collection of fast bowlers India have ever had. Each is a little different from the other, and all four have been around Test cricket for at least four years, playing in a variety of conditions around the world and gaining from each experience. With a settled group of experienced batsmen and two top-class spinners also part of their squad, India have every base covered. If all of them are fit and ready to play the New Year's Test in Cape Town, they could pose South Africa quite a challenge.