A victory at last, but far from a perfect one
The Feroz Shah Kotla Test ended with a short burst of mirth and entertainment: Yuvraj Singh was bowled with one left to win, the West Indies fielders came in to stop the single, MS Dhoni inside-edged his first ball, Darren Sammy pantomimed the start of his run-up to the hoots of the crowd. VVS Laxman then whipped one to square leg and put an end to all the tomfoolery. After eight innings of misery in England, victory was to be shown full respect. In the last 15 months, Laxman has been involved in three 200-plus chases for India and was not about to mess with that track record.
The 0-4 loss in England must not be forgotten but the win at the Kotla comes accompanied by a sigh of relief. Control needed to be seized quickly in the three-Test series against West Indies so that the selectors can tinker and tailor before Australia. While Kotla, Eden Gardens and the Wankhede are as far removed from Australia as Oxford is from Ouagadougou, this is an ideal time for Indian try-outs against opposition that can stir but not quite shake.
In less than 24 hours, the selectors will meet to pick the team for the next two Tests and can indulge in some self-congratulations at how their choices for Delhi worked out. The most significant changes were made - as the bowlers will always grumble about - in the attack.
In their first Test after the England tour, India's bowling attack at the Kotla, barring Ishant Sharma, was completely remodelled from the line-up at the Oval. Making his return to the Indian team after a year out, Pragyan Ojha became the lead spinner and two new men were included. One of them, R Ashwin, ended up with nine wickets on debut, the Man-of-the-Match award and the biggest smile to take to his wedding day on the eve of the Kolkata Test.
The other, Umesh Yadav, held up manfully on a low, slow wicket. In his first showing, he bowled at full pace, hurrying the batsmen in short spells, before fading away slightly in his final spell. In the second innings, he came on after the spinners, and broke through with key wickets. Kirk Edwards' off stump went first as the batsman shouldered arms and opened the door for the West Indies' middle order to be taken apart by Ashwin.
West Indies are not the most formidable opposition for a debutant, and to their credit both Yadav and Ashwin did not treat their lesser batsmen like they were. It is their wagon wheels against Shivnarine Chanderpaul, though, that should give them clues about what life may be like against more-accomplished batsmen.
Captain MS Dhoni was pleased overall. "You weren't 100% sure what you would get from players who have not played this format like Ashwin and Umesh Yadav. With Ishant and Ojha, we knew they'd perform at this level." Ojha's first-innings performance has gone somewhat unnoticed due to Chanderpaul's century and India's first-innings collapse. But on a wicket that offered little help on the first day, he was able to extract some turn, get a bit of drift and keep asking questions of the batsmen. "Ojha has been in and out of the XI. It was good to see him bowl well in the first innings when the pitch was flat and it was not easy to bowl.
"Umesh did well and there was an improvement in the way he bowled in the second innings. Of course he bowls a fraction short but that will get better as he plays more and more Test matches. In the second innings, Ashwin did well. He did not get a lot out of the wicket but it was his variations that helped him. He was flighting the ball nicely and then he has the carrom ball and the topspinner."
Asked whether Ashwin's performance would make it difficult for Harbhajan Singh to return to the team for the Australia tour, Dhoni, who has backed Harbhajan against selectorial opposition, was deadpan. "Let us see because Ashwin has played one game, Ojha has done well. Let us see how it goes."
While describing the Test, Dhoni used his favourite adjective, a word he uses to tackle questions that are best left unanswered: "difficult." The Test, he said, "was not easy; there was nothing much for the bowlers in the pitch and there was nothing for the batsmen. The batsmen had to play a lot of deliveries to score their runs. The scorecard will say the match got over in four days but it was a difficult game."
India's batting gains from this Test will revolve around the sight of Virender Sehwag lashing the ball to all parts (his sudden dismissals will continue to be discussed even after he retires) and the runs accumulated by the experienced middle-order triad across both innings. There was, however, the disconcerting awareness that Dhoni at No.7 is followed by a tail so long, snow leopards would envy it.
Regardless of the final result, conceding a 95-run lead to West Indies at home should sting. "If we had got the first-innings lead I would have thought it was a perfect way to start the series," Dhoni said. "We lacked a few things when we batted first but there's nothing we can pinpoint about the performance. There was not much turn yet more than 20 wickets fell before the start of the third day, so the batsmen from both sides will feel they could have played better."
A darn sight better is what you'd expect from India.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo