11:30 am to 12:00 pm: Umbrellas in the stands, delayed start, cloudy skies, moist outfield, floodlights switched on, hazy red cherry, pacy pitch, ball swinging. India 8/4.
06:30 pm to 07:00 pm: Straw hats in stands, play extended, clear blue sky, bone-dry outfield, fire ball over the head, perfect visibility, true pitch, ball not spinning. England 113/3.
It’s only in England these starkly different conditions can co-exist in a single day’s play. As it turned out, the home team got the best of both worlds. They had the ball in hand when the conditions helped the bowlers and wielded the bat with the sun shining on their backs. India, though, can’t curse the weather for their misery. MS Dhoni had trusted his batsmen to negotiate the tough early morning conditions and make hay when the temperature rose.
They failed miserably.
This meant dark clouds remained over India even when the sun shone brightly as stumps were drawn. The visitors failed to recover from the early morning collapse. Replying to India’s 152 in 46.4 overs, England, despite losing Gary Ballance in the final over of the day, were placed comfortably.
They did trail by 39 runs but with 7 wickets in hand, they were in control. What made England the very clear front runner in this Test was the unbeaten batsman Ian Bell who looks in the kind of touch that would give bowlers nightmares. The images of his trademark cut, late cut, pull and cover drive — the strokes he hit in his 45 today — might make sleeping difficult for India’s bowling unit.
That’s more like it
It wasn’t Bell’s batting that was the highlight of the day. The most engrossing period of play was the opening hour. For the first time in the series the famous English conditions surfaced in its full glory. Finally, you knew why they say this country provided the ultimate test for a batsman.
Any new-ball bowler would have given his non-bowling arm to be at Old Trafford this morning. All you needed to do was to get your length right and give all you had. On Thursday, the conditions and the pitch would give the best value for your bowling investment. Home boy James Anderson surely knew where to pitch the ball to get the maximum rewards. So did his partner Stuart Broad. The ball floating around, taking off after pitching, batsmen on toes, slip fielders excited, ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the stands; you knew why they still queue up to watch Test cricket in these parts. The only ones not enjoying were the 11 Indians, the worst sufferers were the ones who would be at crease during ‘that hour’.
Broad would throw the first punch at India. He got the first of the several edges that would land in the hands of fielders. Gautam Gambhir would be beaten by the bounce as the ball would travel from the shoulder of his bat to the hands of gully.
This wicket was followed by two classic Anderson dismissals. The wickets of Murali Vijay and Virat Kohli proved that the wily pacer didn’t just exploit a weakness but, at times, he can even work on a batsman’s strength to buy a wicket. This is exactly what happened with Vijay, the batsman who has shown great judgment in leaving balls in this series.
The in-form Indian batsman has left more balls than any other batsman in the last three Tests. So Anderson fed him a few balls that were pitched outside the off-stump, which Vijay didn’t bother with. This was followed by a ball bowled from the wide of the crease that was darting straight into his stumps. It was ball you had to play at. Very late, Vijay realised that it was a trap. The teasing red shinning cherry left him after pitching right in front of him.
Kohli, meanwhile, continued to repeat his mistake and remained run-less. He hung his bat out, reached for the ball he could have left, squared up and was caught in the slips. It was all too easy for Anderson. India’s horror hour would end with Cheteshwar Pujara pushing hard at an away going ball from Broad.
The conditions were favouring the England bowlers but they had shown great skills. There aren’t very many great sights in cricket than a ball spearing at a batsman, taking the edge and sailing into the hand of slips. This spectacle took place a number of times today and everyone was enjoying. Even the certified Mr Grumpy, Anderson. Later in the day, after he had set up Ravindra Jadeja with two away going balls and got him with a in-swinger, he merely celebrated.
He didn’t say a word.