Alastair Cook is expected to go misty-eyed when the two teams line-up for the traditional ‘end of the game handshake’ at this final Test. He shouldn’t be blamed for being too expressive in case he earnestly grabs those kind palms that have floored his edges, firmly, to show his heart-felt gratitude. Nor will it be out of place if he walks up to MS Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja, Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane and whispers: “Thanks for everything.”
When you have foes with butterfingers, who needs friends? On Day Two, India’s erratic bowling and inconsistent catching behind the stumps gifted Cook more runs than his form merited, and that in turn made England look more ruthless than they actually were. Two dropped catches by Vijay and Rahane helped the home skipper score an important 79. And a chanceless 129-ball 92 by Joe Root took England to 385/7 at stumps. With their lead swelling to 237 runs, England’s march towards 3-1, that had got a flying start on Day 1, continued to run ahead of schedule.
India were the perfect guest, who didn’t believe in spoiling parties. After ensuring that Cook found his way back as a batsman, the Indians are now making it certain that he leads his team home comfortably. Had Jadeja caught Cook at Southampton in the third Test, his scoring sequence from the first 5 outing of the series would have been 5, DNB, 10, 22 and 14. That costly reprieve would prove to be the window that cricketers of Cook’s class need to get out of form slump. The poor 14 would change to a watershed 95 and that knock would be followed by scores of 70, 17 and a 79 with two dropped catches on Saturday.
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Ironically, the two Cook lives came about in the session that India dominated, their first after the Lord’s win. This was thanks to Varun Aaron, who was running in fast from round the wicket to the two left-handers, Cook and Gary Ballance, pitched the ball up and got late swing. He repeatedly caught Cook in the crease. The probing line assured that the newly improved Cook’s stride forward was conspicuous by its absence. Focusing on outside the off-stump line, the boy from Jharkhand made the England skipper to edge the ball to Vijay at first slip, that jinxed fielding spot where most catches have been dropped in this series. The record was not to improve.
R Ashwin from the other end was bowling those wicked and loopy off-spinners that were actually baits thrown at batsmen to play that risky cut shot. Since his return to form, the left-hander had hidden that one-time favourite shot of his in the closet.
Back among runs, now he felt confident of playing it. Wrong idea. The ball would fly to Rahane at first slip. True to the Indian tradition, the ball would slip from his fingers.
However, Varun wouldn’t be disheartened. Maybe, just as a change of luck, he went over the wicket to Cook and this time the edge fell into Vijay’s hand. Ballance would follow Cook to the pavilion after playing Ashwin into Cheteshwar Pujara’s hands at silly point. For a change, catches were being held and those rare smiles were seen on the Indian faces.
India had pushed their foot into the door that had been banged on them on the first day. Two new batsmen — Ian Bell and Joe Root — were at the crease and Dhoni, to nail the advantage, had called Varun and Ishant Sharma to bowl in tandem.
The move worked, the pressure built. Bell and Moeen Ali went cheaply to Sharma and Ashwin. At tea, the scoreboard would read 246/5.
Though, a successful session between two uninspired periods of play once again showed India’s lack of Test class and consistency on this tour. Varun was refreshingly quick, incisive and thus troubled Cook after lunch. But this was after a morning when he gave easy runs to the England captain by bowling short. Sharma was mostly rusty, but for that one spell in the afternoon. Ashwin continued to try too many things and get too few wickets. The edge he got over the batsmen by bowling off-spinners would go blunt by that one ill-directed long-hop carom ball.
Root very silently crept to 11 from 92 in the final session. He, along with Jos Buttler (45), flogged the exhausted and bored Indian attack. The advantage of 4 wickets and 98-run session was negated by 2 wickets and 139 runs after tea. Leaving the Oval, the ever-optimistic Indians fans, like they did in Manchester, spoke about rain forecast while charting India’s unlikely escape routes. It was an impossible task considering that India hadn’t crossed 200 in their last four innings. They hoped for a washout on Sunday. Maybe, they should also check the weather prediction for later this year when Dhoni and his boys travel to Australia.