As a befuddled Haseeb Hammed picked up his bat that had plopped out of his gloves and trudged back to the pavilion, the celebrating India contingent curiously kept staring at the part of the parched turf from where the ball had exploded like a land mine. All this while, the ball was reluctantly nestling in Parthiv Patel’s gloves, while this one had wickedly spat and thudded onto Haseeb’s gloves.
A brute of a ball. It was just the 10th over of the day, and they’d left wondering whether the pitch had already begun to throw a few innocuous tantrums. There must have been a sense of deja vu, as the last time they’d played a Test here, the strip had shown similar traits. Back in the England dressing room, there must have been a few uneasy twitching on the chairs as well.
But as the match progressed, the whimsical nature of strip was hurled out of the picture by a mix of injudicious shot selection and some clever bowling by both the spinners and pacers. England could look back at the total and feel reasonably satisfied, for they had illustrated a lot of gumption, but would be peeved at the way some of their top-order batsmen contrived to squander their wickets away. Similarly, Indians would feel a sense of triumphalism, but at the same time harp on their hideous fielding pre-lunch. The scorecard at stumps read 268/8; but it could have easily been 230 all out or it could have also been 300/6. A half-empty a half-full kind of feeling.
The hosts would feel they have a marginal ascendancy, whereas England would feel they have piled on a not-yet-out-of-the-battle total. Only that the plight of both sides could have been significantly rosier.
England would rue that they couldn’t maximise the disproportionate slices of fortune they were bestowed with. Their skipper was twice reprieved (on 3 and 15) and made to miss the ball thrice as many times—and Cook generally makes it a point that he doesn’t waste such gifts—but here he perished soon after drinks in the first, attempting perhaps the shot he is least proficient with, the back cut.
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He had survived a fiery test of fast bowling, especially by Mohammad Shami, who had him in knots, and then gifted India’s most destructive spinner with a mighty dose of encouragement in his very first ball. If Cook’s intention was to unsettle Ashwin, who had a few overs ago spilled a dolly, it gloriously misfired. That simply was not Cook’s instinct and when such a batsman tries to manufacture something against his nature, it’s risk-fraught.
More so, after he had seen Joe Root perishing to an ill-opportune shot in the previous over. You can argue that the pull is one of his most productive strokes, but here he was neither back nor forward, and the Jayant Yadav’s delivery was more short of length.
The bat was almost diagonal to the ground when the ball struck his pads. It was so plump that Root didn’t both about referrals.
After 13 overs, the pull induced another dismissal, again unwarranted. For Moeen Ali was stitching a smooth, little partnership with Jonny Bairstow, both batting at the respective spots for the first time in their Test career, before Ali top-edged Shami to fine-leg.
The shot comes habitually to him, but it habitually ends up in the fielders palms too. He knows he’s not the most accomplished puller in the world—and it’s a flaw all too familiar to the Indian bowlers—yet still he couldn’t resist the lure. A fatal lure.
It was hurtful for England in that the strip was at its most placid then, the early moisture had been sucked out by the sun and the cracks hadn’t opened up. It was the perfect setting for a get-your-heads-down and out-churn the opposition approach. An approach that could have made the England dressing room a much happier place.
Stokes, Bairstow resilient
Least of all, it wasn’t the time to impose themselves on bowlers. Such urges needed to be eschewed, more so as Ashwin had bedded into a delicious rhythm and Jayant was muscled out of the attack by Ali. And England were still not yet out of the proverbial woods.
Then for exactly 105 balls, Ben Stokes and Bairstow hardly gave Indians a whiff of hope, apart from an edgy boundary by Stokes when he was on eight. Not that they bowled tripe, Ashwin in fact wielded all the tricks he possessed, on a surface that wasn’t turning alarmingly. There was turn, but slow, harmless turn. Stokes and Bairstow would leisurely drop back and defend. But Ashwin kept varying his pace—there was instance when he bowled a delivery at 100 kmph and the next at 74 kmph—and would slip in his carom ball and then slider.
But the pair would blunt them all, with a rarely-spotted mastery any overseas batting pair have exhibited in tandem. The absence of precocious turn also meant they could hit against the turn of the off-spinner without any risk. Anything over-pitched, was fleeced through covers. If it erred ever-so-minimally on the shorter side, they would be promptly glided behind point.
Together, they set England’s wheels of resurrection in motion. At 144/5, they seemed destined to a total upwards of 300, which would be precious on this pitch. But Stokes couldn’t repress a wanton swish at Jadeja. He would look at the replays and feel like loathing himself. For there was no provocation or requirement to sashay down to Ravindra Jadeja, hitherto toothless, and try to heave him on the leg-side. Jadeja does what he generally does, beat the batsman with pace, for Parthiv to complete a reassuring stumping, though by all means it was as straightforward as it could get.
Maybe, it was the pressure piled on by the dot balls, he had eked out only three runs in the last 20 balls, but in an attritional phase of the match, the rush of blood was inexcusable, and gift-foiled the advantage back to India.
The cheeky glee on Patel’s face disappeared all too soon when he missed a sharp out-side edge catch and stumping of Bairstow, then on 54. For the countless time in his career, he seemed wearing gloves of cast iron. India then were made to wait for 100-odd balls before they could rejoice again.
Both Bairstow and Jos Buttler, once direct competitors for the wicket-keeper slot defied their instincts and stifling Indian bowlers to help England cross 200. But as it had happened on so many instances in this Test and Vizag, a set batsman blew away his start. Buttler caved in softly, spooning a catch to Virat Kohli at mid-off before the bedrock of England on Saturday, Bairstow misread the line as well as turn of Jayant, a delivery after Parthiv had accorded him another lease of life.
He missed a thoroughly deserved hundred, then it seemed England batsmen were riding a curse that none of their batsmen could cross the three-figure mark, after four of them had scored in Rajkot.
The visitors needed such a monumental, match-defining knock to keep themselves a short at staying alive in the series, and not a pile of 40s and 80s. But the merit of those knocks could be better left for hindsight to judge, as how the wicket will eventually behave. If it progressively deteriorates, it could prove precious.