A great delivery, a good ball, and a classy knock lifted the quality of the Vizag Test where India hold all the aces with two days to go. James Anderson hurled a great delivery to knock out Cheteshwar Pujara, Umesh Yadav came up with a real good one to break England’s fight with the bat, and Virat Kohli sparkled with one of his more serene Test knocks. Each of those events changed the complexion of the play — Yadav seized back the initiative, allowing R Ashwin to rush through the tail to get a 200-run first-innings lead, Anderson raised the English hopes, and Kohli settled the Indian nerves.
It’s Yadav’s special that deserves our attention first. The fast bowlers from both camps have struggled to get much reverse in the game. It would wobble a bit but nothing that could threaten a good batsman. Lush outfield, non-abrasive pitch, pleasant weather conditions were some of the reasons offered. Whatever the reason, the little red round thing refused to partake in any trickery.
The match situation was also getting out of hand for India. Almost. Johnny Bairstow and Ben Stokes, who together have had a great year for England, were in the right headspace for the hard graft that was required here. The two had added 110 runs in 44 overs, dragging England from a precarious 80 for 5 to 190. Both were admirably dogged; playing against their natural style. Block, push, leave, tap, drive, block … was the theme of day. They had killed any thoughts India might have had about knocking out the last five wickets cheaply and even wonder about follow-on if the bowlers were fresh. Prospects of an early finish had already evaporated with the afternoon sun when Yadav decided to intervene.
Even in this modern-day cricket where most batsmen like stand with their bat raised, Bairstow tilts on the extreme. He stands like a statue, arms raised chest-high, and the bat cocked up at the sky. Not a muscle twitches even as the bowler is more than half-way through the run-up. A yorker always seems a good idea at him, but he has tackled them in the past.
Yadav has impressed with his accuracy, consistency, and effort in the two games in this series so far. He has kept Ishant Sharma out of the playing XI without much fuss. He has the habit of tossing the ball and catching just before he turns at the top of the run-up. It’s a fluid easy run-up, and a smooth release. In the past, he couldn’t quite repeat his action and has erred in lines. He has been much tighter this year, though.
He let the ball go. It rushed through full, much fuller than the recent deliveries had been. Bairstow twitched forward, stopped that movement as he saw the length, but the ball started to swing in. In the context of game, with not much reverse, Bairstow wasn’t prepared for the extent of deviation. He tried to stab it to the on side but it evaded, crashed into the pad and fell on the stumps.
If you place the replay alongside other famous reverse-swinging deliveries, it would probably look the weakest visual, but in the context of this game, with hardly much reverse, it was quite something. England were 190 for 6, and Ashwin could do the thing he does, and India got the lead they were looking for.
Context is everything in sport. Ask Anderson. On Friday evening, he had talked about how he missed the feeling that comes when he takes wickets for England. And that he couldn’t handle being out for three months due to shoulder injury. He looked dead tired but his spirits were up. It would have amped up on Saturday evening. Anderson had a short first spell and would have watched Stuart Broad take out M Vijay with a nip-backer and induce KL Rahul to poke behind. It was clear that the ball could be cajoled to do something. Anderson was re-introduced into the attack from the end Broad bowled.
With three hundreds in three Tests, Pujara’s form doesn’t need any talking-up. Anderson served a lovely sequence of deliveries: A short one to push Pujara back, and a full one outside off to keep his mind occupied about what would come next.
Greatness arrived. In the past, Anderson has talked how he does what he does. The index finger takes charge on the seam for outswing, the middle finger takes control for the inswing, and he has the wobble ball that lands on the side of the seam. Log on to Youtube to watch the TV show masterclass with Sky Sports’ Ian Ward where Anderson shows his skills. After each delivery – the one that goes away, the one that comes in, and the wobbler – they show the brand new ball with its markings after each delivery; the seam lands where Anderson says it would. For the wobble, he says he ideally wants to land part-seam, part cherry. Utterly fascinating stuff.
It perhaps was the wobble-delivery that he bowled to Pujara as the follow up to the bouncer and the one that whistled through the outside-off channel.
The seam was scrambled as it came in, the middle finger is the last to come off, the seam is tilted towards on side, and the ball landed — part seam, part cherry. The prominent seam means the ball landing on its edge helps in cutting the ball that much more. And this one did.
Sometimes Pujara doesn’t get that front foot forward enough, and can push out the bat a way too much in front, opening up the bat-pad-gap. Here only a Boycott or a Gavaskar could be harsh with him. He did move forward, perhaps not as much as some others but he hadn’t frozen at the crease. The ball kept cutting in, and an alarmed Pujara tried to push out his bat but it crashed through to the middle stump. The look on Pujara’s face was the best compliment that Anderson could have got in his comeback game.
India were reduced to 40 for 3 in 18.3 overs at the fall of Pujara. The game wasn’t in a balance but it had got a lot more interesting. One more wicket could have exposed the lower middle order — Ashwin who has bowled a lot of overs and could be tired — to Anderson’s trickery. If they had bowled out India cheaply, England could well have been chasing something like 350 – still a really difficult task but a partnership from England top order would mean that India couldn’t have attacked with as many close-in fielders.
Here is where Kohli chose to take control of the game. He had started off in a flurry, driving regally, on driving and pulling but he perfectly sensed the match situation after Pujara’s exit. It was the time to graft, pull down the shutter, not allow England to puff-out their chests. We have seen him counterattack or impose himself in Indian conditions but it was time for something different. Normally, a sense of bossiness comes through during his aggressive knocks — serenity came through here in Vizag.
As ever, the balance at crease was supreme, and allowed him to take decisions late without much fuss. There was a delivery from Adil Rashid late in the day, that actually almost shot through low. Most good batsmen would have adjusted to lack of bounce but might have just pushed it out to the on side. Kohli pressed back and even as the bounce died and the ball began to skid towards his pad, there wasn’t any last-minute panic. The bottom-hand took over, and he not only kept the ball away but managed to whip it through midwicket for a four.
He was compact in defence and, as they say, solid. The foot movements were precise, the bat came down mostly straight and on the rare occasions, like this one time against Ben Stokes, when the natural urge to swat-flick or go to the on side took over, he would immediately shadow-practice the bat coming through nice and straight. Ajinkya Rahane put a good fight too, and ever so slowly, India finished the day on top. A day where Yadav, Anderson and Kohli can really put up their feet and smoke a cigar. Well, they probably won’t, but if they do, it would be understandable.