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Match Analysis

Deep end brings the best out of battle-hardened Akash

A long and difficult journey to Ranchi culminated in a memorable first day of Test cricket for the fast bowler

There was something weirdly familiar about this sight. Something about the bowler's thinning crown, his energy through the crease, his follow-through. Something about the batter's harried movements, feet going nowhere, hands going where they shouldn't. And something about that off stump, sent spinning out of its moorings and bounce-landing halfway to where leg slip might have stood.
It was - or was meant to be - the 11th ball of Akash Deep's Test career. It could have been a ball pulled from a Mohammed Shami highlights reel.
The no-ball siren cut short Akash's celebrations, but he'd have his man soon enough, and the aesthetic appeal of Zak Crawley's actual dismissal would be on par with that of his near-dismissal. If you're the kind of cricket fan that prefers the inducker that flicks the off bail out of its groove to the one that punches the off pole in the gut, you might even rank it higher.
Later in the day, Crawley described the feeling of facing Akash: "Skiddy bowler. More pace than what I thought he had. Ran the ball back in with variable bounce. It was tricky as he was getting it to nip. It was tough."
Skiddy. Quicker than you think. Getting it to nip.
India began this fourth Test in Ranchi with one change to their combination from the third one in Rajkot, with this skiddy debutant replacing Jasprit Bumrah, their most influential player of the series and their greatest-ever fast bowler by every measure other than longevity.
Within the first hour of play, the debutant had cut through England's top three. He went round the wicket to the left-handed Ben Duckett, and nicked him off with a ball that straightened in the corridor. He went wide of the crease and speared one into the advancing Ollie Pope's front pad, honing in on the batter's vulnerability to the inward angle. He bowled Crawley twice.
All this happened before he'd completed his sixth over in Test cricket.
If it was a giddy rush for the viewer, imagine how it must have felt for Akash, all this coming at him so quickly, with no time for reflection, after he'd traversed such a long and complicated path to get to this place. Poignantly enough, this place, the venue of his Test debut, is located roughly halfway between Sasaram, where he grew up, and Durgapur, where he went to pursue his cricket, covertly at first, defying his parents' admonishments, and then with a sense of desperate purpose after he lost both his father and his brother in the space of six months.
"When you lose two family elders in one year, you don't have anything left to lose," Akash said at the end of the day's play. "This was the thought I left my home with. I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain."
Like Shami, like Mukesh Kumar, Akash is not from Bengal but is very much of it. They're part of a long tradition of successful cricketing migrants - other prominent examples include Dilip Doshi, Arun Lal and Rohan Gavaskar - but they've also sparked off a tradition of their own. They've moved to Bengal from the mighty Gangetic states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and they all bowl nagging lines and nip it around off the seam.
Mukesh, capped three times in Tests so far, and Akash were competing for one bowling slot here in Ranchi, and it was Akash India turned to. It didn't take long to see why. The pitch at the JSCA Stadium had plenty in it for the new ball on day one, with movement and uneven bounce waiting to be extracted from its patchy grass and uneven spread of cracks. Mukesh could have got something out of it too, but Akash is just that little bit quicker and skiddier, and his lines and lengths that little bit likelier to harass the top of the stumps.
The side-on replay that confirmed the no-ball to Crawley also revealed a possible source of Akash's ability to rush batters. At the point where he touched down with his front foot to complete his delivery stride, his right arm had only just begun its final rotation. When bowlers look to gain a yard of pace, one tweak they often make is to change their load-up in order to delay the bowling arm's rotation and generate greater arm speed - as Andrew Tye explains here. Mitchell Starc, who probably didn't have to try too hard to bowl fast, is noted for his delayed bowling arm.
Akash isn't a 145kph tearaway, but on Friday showed he can consistently operate in the high 130s and occasionally slip into the low 140s, and do this while hammering away on that awkward, bail-bothering length. That combination of pace, length and skid off the pitch meant he often left batters pinned to the crease. Even the Pope dismissal was, in a weird way, an example of this. Pope walked out of his crease, but Akash's length and inward movement left him in a position that's often seen in batters trapped on the crease: front leg braced rather than bent, head falling over to the off side.
All of Akash's wickets could have been Shami wickets, and Akash bowls like he grew up watching and idolising Shami, but this wasn't exactly the case.
"In my childhood I didn't even know cricket," he said. "There was no cricket where I come from. I started playing tennis [-ball] cricket in 2007, and began to learn about the game in 2016, when I left home to play cricket. Since then, I have been watching Shami bhai and following him, and [Kagiso] Rabada."
When he figured out what was working for him on this pitch, Akash kept things simple - another echo of Shami. He realised early on that going wider on the crease was the way to go on the day, and he stuck to it.
"When I tried 2-3 balls from close to the stumps, there wasn't much help, and it wasn't swinging either, after the first three overs," Akash said. "I started bowling from the edge of the crease, trying to bowl outswing, but it was pitching and seaming in. Everything was coming in."
It was notable how much uncertainty Akash kept causing even though he was moving nearly everything in one direction. It was enough, with the element of uneven bounce thrown into the mix when the ball was hard and new and there was a bit of moisture in the surface, enough for Akash's first spell in Test cricket to end with figures of 7-0-24-3.
As the moisture evaporated and the ball aged and softened, the pitch seemed to become something else entirely, slow and low and hard work for bowlers of all kinds.
"This wicket has always been slow," Akash said. "There was help for fast bowlers when the ball was hard and new but after lunch when the seam wasn't very prominent and the wicket had dried up, there was no pace in the surface. And even if it was seaming, the batters were getting inside edges and managing. So the option for us was to keep runs to a minimum. We know England play cricket with a different formula, so if they have made [302] runs in 90 overs, it means that we have bowled in good areas."
Akash's new-ball efforts have also helped India take seven wickets to go with the control of the scorecard, putting them in a reasonable though by no means secure position at the end of day one. More work remains to be done, but Akash will be more than pleased with a terrific first day in Test cricket.
He'll also reflect on every step of his journey here, and every face that was part of it.
"I dedicate this to my father, because it was his dream that his son achieves something in his life," he said. "I wasn't able to do anything when he was alive, so I dedicate this performance to him."

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo