This was Ben Stokes’s pantomime villain moment. Textbook send-off methods instruct giving the vanquished batsman a blood-curdling stare, strewn in with a few mean expletives. Or snigger, or squeal, as Kohli did when Stokes was dismissed on Saturday. But Stokes, reprimanded by the ICC for “language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting”, just turned his back at Virat Kohli with the index finger on lips. Before he was swarmed by his teammates for producing what could probably turn out to be be a match-defining juncture in a fascinating Test that continues to ebb and flow, the current flowing back and forth, undetermined yet to choose a definitive course.
Stokes, the workhorse ploughing away unflaggingly on an anaesthetised surface on the hottest day of the week, gave India the hammer blow of the afternoon, nullifying the ascendancy they had laboured hard to gather. It looked thus, when Kohli was still at the crease, having battled through a fire-and-brimstone session and seen off 15 minutes of chaotic imprudence from himself and his peers after tea. He was sewing up a vital little association with Ravichandran Ashwin and sauntering along with 48 runs off 10.1 overs, which had considerably sapped England’s momentum, when Stokes struck.
There have times in this series, and in this year, when it had seemed that it required something out of the ordinary, from the bowler as well as the surface, to terminate Kohli. For not only has he been in such imperious touch, but also had embraced a ruthless temperance, especially after he had seen off the early stiffness of the mind and body.
So yet again, nothing seemed to stop Kohli from converting his half-century to a hundred or even a score of bigger proportion, for he seldom seemed harried or hustled, batting as smoothly as he had been in the series. And that was a time England were veering towards a suicidal laxity.
Then he succumbed to that old fallibility of his, stabbing outside the off-stump, reminiscent of his torment in England in 2014. England, right throughout the series, were bent of rekindling that weakness of his, but Kohli had stoically shown a deference. But this time, the ball nipped ever-so-slightly away from him to brush the slightly ajar face of his bat. Sure, it was pitched wide enough to be left alone, but a moment of indiscretion did him in. And on such moments of indiscretion, misjudgement is a better word, would hinge the outcome of a Test.
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But at least Kohli’s mode of dismissal didn’t look as hideous as Pujara’s. Adil Rashid had gift-wrapped him the meekest of short balls. Whereas Pujara mark one would have fleeced it through the ground, Pujara retooled would have deposited it to the thinly-populated gallery over mid-wicket. But maybe, he was caught between the incarnations that he just managed to test Chris Woakes’s swooping skills.
Seldom had he seemed aghast at himself, self admonishing himself on his walk back to the dressing room. For seldom must have he gifted his wicket so cheaply. It was that tripe, and an atypical way to end a resolute knock by India’s No 3. Then it was not the first he had floundered attempting a pull off a spinner this year, enough though he is an accomplished executor of that shot. It had occurred in the first innings in Antigua during the West Indies series, off Devendra Bishoo.
That suddenly opened up a window of hope for England. For in Test matches, wickets tend to fall in a heap, especially in contest as intense as this.
And by the time Pujara had returned from his shower, he must have been shuddered to see Ashwin batting with the skipper. For Ajinkya Rahane and the unfortunate debutant Karun Nair were seen off in a matter of six balls, the latter undone by a combination of the skipper’s ball-watching habits and an accurate throw from Jos Buttler, and the former a victim of his own self-doubt.
A sudden streak of self-doubt that has seized Rahane in the series, wherein he has hoarded 63 runs in five innings, a glitch by his prolific standards this far. Even more surprisingly, it was the third time in this series he was nailed by a spinner. In Rajkot, he was bowled by Zafar Ansari and Moeen Ali. He misread Ansari’s length in the first innings, then he tried to cut Ali on a turning surface. Here he couldn’t fathom Rashid’s googly. He thrust his front foot out, expecting the leg-break. Thus, through a blend of careless shot-making, a terrific run out and an excellent delivery, India, who at tea were 148/2, were now 156/5. Slipping from a spot of dominance to spot of concern in a matter of just three overs. These thrilling vicissitudes maketh an absorbing Test match.
If India considered themselves lucky enough to be still in the game, they have to be grateful to Ravichandran Ashwin, who played a no less significant role in helping India finish the day at 271/6, without the proverbial egg on their face.
First, by allaying all the nerves lurking in the ground after Nair’s exit and then, more pertinently, shepherding Ravindra Jadeja in an invaluable partnership of 67, the second highest of the Indian innings. There could have been point in time where India could have stumbled to 230 all out, handing out England a precious lead.
But he and Jadeja not only hung in there, but also counter-punched in bursts to take India further closer to the England total. As much as the visitors were culpable of doling out loose balls, the pair made calculated risks to eat into the lead, handing out India yet again the slight pre-eminence in the match. Should they continue in the same vein, and they have Jayant Yadav too, India could pocked a lead that could render this match with a conclusive direction.
“Our game plan would be simple — we would be looking to take a lead of 75-100 runs. If they continue to bat, you never know. Both of them can bat. We saw in the last game that Jayant Yadav can also bat. Our lower-order has been contributing in all the Test matches. So we expect them to continue (in the same way) tomorrow as well,” reflected Pujara.
However, England wouldn’t be exactly gutted as how the second day had played out for them. If they can limit India’s lead to less than 30, they would look at their body of work with a twinkle in their eyes. For the conditions have been that bereft of respite for them. But all through this match, they have demonstrated that they possess a spirit yet to be conquered, a rare streak of courage and defiance that has ensured the match’s still hanging in a balance, going into the third day.