With his full-beard rugged look, soiled whites and strapped elbow, Liam Plunkett looked every bit a war hero as he acknowledged the royal reception from the stands. He waved and clapped as he walked down the famous Lord’s slope to take his position at the fine-leg fence. He had just bowled what could be the most-significant 6 balls of the series and the capacity crowd was letting him know that.
By dismissing Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, in successive balls, Plunkett had damaged the L3 and L4 of the Indian spine. With Ajinkya Rahane, too, getting out cheaply, India would finish at 169/4. And the visitors had conceded a 24-run lead in the first innings, they were actually 145 with 6 wickets in hand.
India was much more comfortably placed when Plunkett had started ‘the’ over of the day, which was 44th of the innings. They were 123/1 with Pujara on 43 and Vijay on 37. The two batsmen, who famously get along when on 22 yards, seemed set for a big Lord’s partnership.
The final session was just 15 overs old but the solidity of the Indian batsmen was such that you thought that Vijay and Pujara would walk to the pavilion at stumps, unconquered. In the clear blue sky, the harsh sun would hide briefly behind the few stray clouds that would pass over London. Even the weather looked predictable as a lazy afternoon seemed on cards.
That’s until Pujara made the first wrong decision of the day. Or was it indecision? Before his false stroke, he had played a perfect innings. To James Anderson’s frustration, Pujara knew where his off-stump was. Forget that, he even knew how tall it was. Showing precise judgement against England’s sharpest bowler Anderson, who bowled a probing off-stump line, the India No.3 would get his head over the ball to play the ones he had to. While the ones that were wider or higher were left alone.
There were also those delivers that came swinging in towards the middle stump but sneaked towards the slips at the last minute.
Even those couldn’t catch Pujara’s fancy or the edge of his bat. He seemed to have passed the Anderson test of patience.
After negotiating Anderson’s 14-6-26-0, Pujara and Vijay got to face Stuart Broad and Plunkett, the pair that hasn’t really bothered the Indians. After the long period of vigil, the Indian batsmen might have seen this as a window of opportunity to score some quick runs.
So when Plunkett bowled a ball that was slightly outside off, Pujara first reached for it and at the last micro second he pulled back. It was too late, the ball took the edge of the hanging bat and it landed in the hands of the wicketkeeper. 123/2 wasn’t bad but 123/3, that was a ball away, was worrisome.
Golden duck for Kohli
Plunkett came up with a dream ‘first ball’ to Kohli. Dressing room instructions are fresh in the minds when batsmen take guard.
‘Leave the ball’ is the usual tip, especially in England, that is given to those who are padding up. So when Plunkett’s ball seemed to be landing about a foot outside off-stump, Kohli thought of letting it pass. Suddenly, the ball, like a Saturday night drunk driver on a mean curve, came crashing at the top of off-stumps. In a space of a couple of balls, Lord’s was alive again. Plunkett’s two balls had killed the boredom.
The Test had been given another twist. England were once again on India’s shoulder, just one more lunge away from pinning them down.
A fidgety Dhoni on the crease added to the excitement. Plunkett continued to exploit Dhoni’s early weakness against the balls pitched around the off-stump. The Indian skipper would mishit balls that would trickle to point or walk down the track to let the ball hit his pad. Loud appeals, shrieks from the stands. Lord’s alive again.
Plunkett, who for most of the Nottingham Test was banging the ball short and being an impact bowler, had got new role at Lord’s that suited him more. He was bowling fast, pitching it full and hitting the right areas. And he was also walking down the Lord’s slope clapping and smiling, acknowledging the grand reception that a war hero deserves.