How an incredible bench strength has fuelled India’s golden era in cricket

The Wankhede Test against New Zealand was only Jayant Yadav’s fifth Test match, and his first in almost five years. The last time he had been needed was on a dustbowl in Pune against Australia in February 2017 as third spinner alongside R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. At Wankhede, he was drafted in as third spinner behind Ashwin and Axar Patel only because Ravindra Jadeja wasn’t available.

The last time the Ranji Trophy was played was in the 2019-20 season, so Jayant Yadav hadn’t played a first-class match since February 2020 coming into the Mumbai Test. With no red-ball rhythm to speak of, he then got a grand total of two overs in the New Zealand first innings, which itself lasted just 28.1 overs.

The rustiness showed in how he often dragged the ball short or sent it right under the bat in the second innings on the third afternoon. The turn had gone slower, and it was going to take a bit more work to break through.

On the fourth morning, he got the ball ahead of Axar Patel because the last specialist batting pair in the middle was left-handed – Henry Nicholls and Rachin Ravindra. Again, he served up a few half-trackers to be punched for fours and overcompensated with very full ones to be swept to the boundary again.

But as head coach Rahul Dravid would say later, Jayant improved his lengths soon. And the moment he strung a few deliveries on target, New Zealand had nowhere to escape. After a spell of 8-2-30-0 on Day Three, Jayant’s figures on Day Four read 6-2-19-4.

He beat the left-handers so regularly on both front and back foot it became a matter of not turning the ball too much. And that happened eventually in the seventh over of the morning, when Rachin Ravindra edged a forward defensive to second slip. Jayant ripped through the tail in minutes thereafter. The big turn became a bigger weapon against the right-handers, and he also lured Tim Southee to his downfall with lots of teasing flight.

Jayant’s home ground in domestic cricket is Lahli near Rohtak, where the water table is so high blades of grass will peep through the pitch in no time, no matter how much you trim it. Haryana do not have much use for his off-spin there; he’s played only 21 first-class matches in Lahli since debuting in 2011.

He got an India game after nearly half a decade, and there is no saying when his next will come, probably when India need a third spinner on a turner and a regular isn’t available. But it is likely that Jayant — and others such as him who will probably never be regulars — will continue to keep themselves in states of near-match preparedness, ready to hit the ground running whenever they are called up.

That India’s home record is near-impregnable is partly down to fringe players such as Jayant, who keep coming out of the cold and putting in key performances. Against England also at Wankhede five years ago, Jayant’s century at No. 9 had been crucial in turning 364/7 into 631 after the visitors had posted 400.

India’s bench strength may have almost come to be taken for granted, but that perception should not take away from just how ridiculously good it is. The Brisbane Test against Australia earlier this year will remain the hallmark on that front.

It is still mind-boggling to recall that T Natarajan and Washington Sundar were making their debuts, Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur were playing their second Test, and Mohammed Siraj his third. And this attack bowled out Australia in their famed citadel for 369 and 294.

Even in this series against New Zealand, it was two batters far from the first XI who made the difference – Shreyas Iyer in in Kanpur and Mayank Agarwal in Mumbai. Iyer hadn’t played a first-class game in nearly three years before making a century and half-century on Test debut. Agarwal had gone from being Rohit Sharma’s preferred opening partner at the start of the year to third in the queue behind KL Rahul and Shubman Gill. He top-scored in both innings in Mumbai with 150 and 62. Both Iyer and Agarwal revived their team from mid-innings stumbles.

Skipper Virat Kohli lauded Agarwal’s application and character. “To play at this level for such a long time, you need to have a lot of character, and he has plenty of that,” Kohli said after India’s 372-run win in Mumbai.

“He has always played at a high level. It’s not just about riding the wave and playing on, it’s about evolution and he has constantly done that. Also, a performance like this will build character and help him going forward, not only as a batsman but also as a person. He’s definitely an asset and he has fantastic character. These innings will give him a lot of confidence.”

Also deriving confidence will be the likes of Axar, who’s thrived this year in Test cricket with ball and now with bat too, with 52 and 41 not out in Mumbai. Even someone who did not get a game officially, KS Bharat, was highly impressive behind the stumps when standing in for the injured Wriddhiman Saha on a difficult track to keep wicket in Kanpur.

Now and then, you will have a freak talent such as Jasprit Bumrah who’ll be fast-tracked into Test cricket, but the value of building a reliable pool of players with solid first-class experience will endure. For instance, Bharat has played 78 first-class games already, and for all his white-ball fame, Iyer had been part of 54 red-ball matches before his Test debut arrived.

It tells you something about the health of Indian cricket when alongside the growth of the IPL, there are so many first-rate young cricketers making cases for a run in the Test team.

“To play Test cricket you need passion and intent. Indian cricket is in safe hands when you have so many people who have that,” Kohli said. “People are hungry to play Tests well. It’s nice to see youngsters want to feel what it is to play Tests. That’s how they understand why it’s called the toughest format, most respectful format. They want to do well in India and outside. That attitude is what is going to help us do better going ahead.”

It is also one of the reasons India will be expected to do well on the South Africa tour, after having rolled over the world Test champions at home in practically three days.

For the first time since forever, a tour to Australia and South Africa are these days looked with eager anticipation of a triumph. When a Tony Grieg would try pressing his keys into the turf in Australia during pre-dawn pitch reports and unbend himself with a smile at how hard the pitch is, shivers would go up the spine. Nowadays, a smile appears in pitch reports. Dry, bouncy, or moisture laden, the pitch-talk feels just another incidental thing in a day of Indian cricket fan.

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