England players would have sat in the bus from the stadium to the hotel — 163 runs ahead and all 10 wickets in hand — pleased as punch, and buoyed along by hope of actualising the thing you desire. Could they just pull of something memorable here? Memory bleed from a fretful past might have also peeped in at tea when they had to bat but they were calmed by the admirable composure and talent shown by a 19-year old kid.
Indians might tell themselves that if English could bat out without much fuss, so could they but a few dark little thoughts might be swirling around. What if the top surface of the pitch finally disintegrates, and allows turn and reverse swing on Sunday? India doesn’t do bat-for-draws as well as some other teams. If the mental fog, if any, clears up, they would take heart in the fact that the pitch hasn’t become an akhada, a sand-pit, yet. The rough on one end is outside the line of stumps, and the other end is relatively free of any crumbling soil patch. If Indians don’t implode, they should draw this one but we all know what pressure can do.
The sunny Rajkot finally got a wonderful day of competitive cricket on Saturday where drama and heartache shadowed the Indians. Through the day, it was the Indians who were a bit dazed, as if they were stuck in a long ATM queue and were told the machine had run out of cash by the time they got to top of the queue. Every time they quelled a English challenge, either they slipped up, or had the rug pulled under their feet, before R Ashwin stepped up with a fine nerves-settling 70.
Pinned down by scoreboard pressure, and shackled further by a disciplined English attack which had a definite purpose about them, they were put under kosh.
England’s intent was visible from the start of play. It was seen in the way Stuart Broad attacked Virat Kohli a touch wide outside off. Normally, it might seem a defensive ploy but even in the past, the English have liked to drag Kohli across the stumps and make him play away from the body. It wasn’t as if Kohli wasn’t alert; at one point he even took an off-stump guard almost, making sure he wasn’t too far away from the little red thing.
The plan was also visible in the way Broad and Woakes targeted Ajinkya Rahane with bouncers. Like Kohli, Rahane too was up to the challenge, even unfurling those rolled-down pulls despite the presence of two men behind square near the boundary for one that pops up. The ball whooshed and bounced but the Indians not only held up the fort but looked good to seize initiative as well when it went topsy-turfy with the introduction of spin.
For some reason, Rahane decided he would be VVS Laxman or Rahul Dravid. Standing inside the crease, he decided to whip a delivery from the left-arm spinner Zafar Ansari that landed on a length. The back leg didn’t have much space to retreat further, there was no space for effective weight transfer, the front leg twitched a bit before he yanked it sideways, to the on side, to open up his body, but then it was neither the length nor did he possess the wrists of VVS.
Caught in a similar position, the taller Laxman might have connected with the whip across the line. Trapped in the same tight spot, Dravid, who wouldn’t have stood so far in the crease in the first place, would have pressed back and somehow squeezed it out to the on side. If he was pinned down like that, Tendulkar might have taken the right-hand off the handle and stabbed the ball to midwicket. Rahane couldn’t get any wood on leather, though.
The Indian fight continued with a partnership between Ashwin and Kohli before the captain became a hit-wicket victim. Felled by the thing he loves, a strength turning into a self-trap. It wasn’t his bat or the back leg that did it but he swivelled off the front foot so much that he ended up facing square-leg almost, and the left leg collided with the base of the stumps. He must have felt the impact but it took a short agonising while to sink in.
In the space of 12 runs, India had lost Rahane and Kohli and were wedged in a hole at 361 for 6, still 176 runs adrift of England, and it was left to Ashwin to pull them through to relative safety. Indians began to breathe easier during the next one-and-half-hours or so as Ashwin added 64 runs with Wriddhiman Saha.
Saha ‘s method
Before we get into Ashwin, let’s turn to Saha’s interesting knock. It was as if Wriddi wanted to turn into Wriddi da, if you get the idea. Aggressive, intent on counterattacking, even if he wasn’t always in full control. Saha is at an interesting phase in his career. Once touted as safest hands in the country, his keeping has slipped but his batting approach has turned increasingly interesting — it’s still early to use other adjectives as of now — at international level.
Very early on, after he was squared-up by a quickish legbreak from Adil Rashid, and almost edging the next ball with an airy waft, Ashwin walked towards him. Saha nodded his head, put his hand up, and Ashwin retreated immediately. Pretty soon, Saha came down the track to Rashid, couldn’t reach the pitch of the turning ball but lifted it over mid-on with just one hand on the bat. Would that risky episode change his mind? Nope, it didn’t. He went down the track, wasn’t up there to the pitch again, but this time he sliced it with the turn, up and over for a six over long-off. He was relatively quiet against the seamers, was beaten couple of times, once edging Ben Stokes past a diving Bairstow. Just when it seemed, India had effected the jail break, a feeling that strengthened after Saha sashayed down the track to lift Mooen Ali over mid-off, he fell, chasing a fairly wide delivery and edging the cut.
Ravindra Jadeja’s stocks with the bat at this level has been falling for a while now – he has already slid down in the order and he didn’t do much to change that impression yesterday. It didn’t take long for Rashid to get one to turn and bounce from back of length, and Jadeja was so locked up in his position, that he could only pop it up to short-leg.
It was Ashwin, however, that India have to really thank for reaching this position where they can still be pretty confident about a draw. As ever, he looked confident and almost at ease out there. As if it were possible in this situation. But that’s the impression this talented batsman usually gives. As always, he seemed to have more time on his hands than some top order batsmen, and tackled spin and seam on his own terms.
The extra time he has also creates scenes where the opposition think they have their man. Ben Stokes was left holding his head when Ashwin once played a late-steer to thirdman, just as the ball had almost reached the stumps. He chopped Moeen Ali also very late, and once Chris Woakes thought he had skidded the ball through the defences but Ashwin got his bat down to punch it to the off. For the majority, though, he punch-drove, caressed, steered, and pinged the gaps.
When the last man Mohammad Shami joined him, he went for quick runs — lofting and cutting. He fell eventually, after getting the lead under 50, holing out to deep midwicket.
Ashwin might have even raised the hopes of the Indian win, but the dogged Alastair Cook and the teenager Haseeb Hameed, in particular, silenced them. Hameed has been compared with Boycott and Atherton in the past, but he has more intent than those two, and he was at the forefront as England moved towards a position of strength by stumps.