If you’re looking for a singular frame to condense the brooding intensity of the second session, you would struggle to finalise on any. For it was that kind of a compelling session, wherein the numbers and frames became merely irrelevant. There was one defining moment, neither a stroke nor a scalp. Or even a freakish catch. You had to watch it, ball-by-ball, second-by-second, to experience the plethora of varying emotions it threw up. Or to experience Test cricket at its combative best.
A representative picture could be a wide-angle frame of 13 expended players tromping back to their dressing room. Yet you wonder whether it could absorb the specifics like the earth-smattered flannels of Pujara, the sheer exhaustion on Virat Kohli’s face, or the streak of linear red patch on the back of Joe Root’s pants. Or the beads of sweat that seemed to moisten the otherwise sweat-less visage of Alastair Cook. If one of those low-flying jets buzzing over the ground obliged to air-lift them to the dressing room, they would have readily jumped in. They must have been that tired.
You can scour the scorecard and be puzzled about this buzz. After all, just 88 runs for a wicket in 29 overs doesn’t suggest anything remotely close to drama or spectacle. Or if your cricketing sensibilities were fashioned by short-form narratives, you’d snide at the shortage of boundaries and breathtaking wicket-taking deliveries. Indian batsmen found the ropes just 12 times, they didn’t fetch over it even once. They didn’t intent to bump it over the ropes in for a split-second either. There was just one wicket-taking delivery, and none perhaps that merited a wicket.
There was a catch dropped, a couple of brilliant saves and a leading edge that fell in no man’s land.
That was all the action the session churned out. Yet, it was easily the most riveting session of this series, when the intangibles, like the doggedness and determination England showed or the unwavering discipline and focus with which Kohli and Pujara repelled it, took precedence over numbers and eye-catching strokes. It was akin to a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, the drama accumulating insidiously, with nothing of the flashiness that pervade melodramas.
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For the convenience of narration, we could begin from the 30th over, when Cook re-drafted his talisman James Anderson into the attack. Anderson, hitherto, was blasé. He hardly managed any conventional swing with the new ball, was rubbished with a brace of gorgeous boundaries down the fence by Parthiv Patel. But Cook knew the delicateness of the situation. India’s best pair in this series were batting together and he couldn’t let the match drift away. And there was no better bowler to be entrusted the responsibility to disunite the pair than his most experienced bowler. It was not his last dice, but the first resort.
Anderson did nothing untoward in his four-over spell. In the end, he didn’t separate them either. But with the assistance of his willing accomplices, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes, he chalked out a plan that looks so routine in concept, but difficult to actually accomplish it. That was to dry up the runs and play on their patience. This meant giving nothing away on the stumps and keep probing outside the off-stump. The length, predominantly fuller, in pursuit of that edge or an uppish drive, was to be occasionally mixed up too. There was to be an intentional loose ball in between as well, to coax a false stroke. For not getting runs would be especially frustrating for batsmen in such fine touch as Kohli and Pujara. Or so they conjectured.
It was also a tactic provoked by the slothfulness of the pitch. Both the senile strip and the middle-aged ball were equally tired. Earlier, Stokes would spank the ball with all his energy, but would doze off apologetically into Bairstow’s gloves. Adil Rashid’s malleable wrists would give the ragged red ball a ferocious flick. The ball fizzed and drifted in the air, before it’s shorn off all its vitality by the surface.
So Woakes and Anderson began with a maiden each. Woakes bowled another maiden. Anderson was bunted for a single. Four overs leaked just a single. The pressure slowly stockpiling. In Anderson’s third over, he gave a fraction of width to Pujara, who dabbled it to the third man fence. There were two slips and a gully waiting for an airy shot, if any, but the slowness of the pitch meant he had ample time to place the ball wherever he chose to.
India seemed to have broken the spell when Kohli glazed a brace of boundaries off Ben Stokes, who had replaced a fatigued Woakes. Now, there was a bit of personal antagonism too, the send Kohli gave Stokes and all. But both seemed to be weighed down by it. Sometimes, when such men are involved a quest for one-upmanship, they tend to try too hard and mess up. But neither Stokes nor Kohli were not thinking about it.
Post drinks, Anderson kept interrogating Pujara’s temperament, making most balls hold off the line and then making some tail in marginally. But the latter was a picture of calm defiance. Two opportunistic singles and it was again between Stokes and Kohli. The first ball, he mistimed a drive to short cover, the second, not as full as the previous, was nicely defended, the third was left alone. On the fourth ball, though, Kohli couldn’t girdle the instinct to drive with his feet anywhere close to the pitch of the ball, resulting in a leading edge that fell safely between the two cover fielders.
They couldn’t afford to give England of such chances and they decided to shut shop. Or even they had wanted to get a few quick runs, they weren’t allowed such luxuries by Stokes and Rashid, who had replaced Anderson. Subsequently, India churned out only 6 runs from 34 balls. It was not until Stokes drifted ever so minutely into Pujara’s pads that the deadlock was broken. Then Stokes almost immediately consumed him, Pujara wafting at a wide short ball, only to bullet between and over the first and second slip.
Stokes shrugged his head in dismay, for he could have gotten rid of both these batsmen with a bit of fortune. Stokes was again unlucky, as Bairstow couldn’t cling on to an edge down the leg side off Pujara. That was Stokes last over of the spell than embodied England’s fight. With the end of his spell, ended that nerve-draining 16 overs of cat-and-mouse game.
The edginess of the phase reflected on the players as well. Either team wouldn’t give a door-nail’s space away, their brains frenetically ticking over to decode their opponent’s strategy and the bodies perked up to conceal the physical and physiological rigours. Kohli and Pujara hardly conversed between overs. Cook would tweak and re-tweak his field, the fielders would save every single as if their life clung on it. Bairstow would cheer the bowlers with every ounce of his vocal energy. Those were inarguably the most precious 34 runs Pujara and Kohli had put together and the stoutest 16 overs England bowlers had produced in this series. A pity there there were just about a thousand people watching it from stands.