Fear factor: On a very good first-day pitch, England loaded their playing XI with seven specialist batsmen, plus a wicketkeeper-batsman and only three specialist bowlers. They won the toss and had every opportunity to bat big. The ball hardly turned, at least in the first two sessions of the fourth Test. But a maelstrom of horror (pitch plus spin) seems to have clouded their minds at the moment. It has sucked the courage out of their system, and they don’t have any workable strategy to combat the Indian bowlers, Axar Patel in particular.
Axar was introduced in the sixth over of the day and dismissed Dom Sibley with his second delivery. The England opener looked to have carried the hangover of the pink-ball day-night Test to a red-ball game. He got out to another straighter – the ball sliding in, the batsman playing for the turn.
Turnout at the 1,10,000-seater Narendra Modi Stadium on Thursday was underwhelming. Not more than 5,000 fans walked through the turnstiles. Those who were present merrily cheered when the tourists reached 200. Of late, England have been struggling to get to that total. Their batting lasted 79.2 overs across two innings in the last Test. From that perspective, their first innings total in the fourth Test, 205 (75.5 overs), was an improvement. But by Test cricket’s standards, on a good surface, it was poor. India finished the day on 24, losing Shubman Gill’s wicket.
Axar missed out on another five-for and returned with 4/68 from 26 overs. Two straight deliveries and two attempted big hits from Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence did the job for him. Ravichandran Ashwin came late into the party but still bagged three wickets. A fearful England yet again failed to put up a fight.
Confusing selection: Once again, the England team management misread the pitch. On a raging turner in the third Test, they played three fast bowlers and only one frontline spinner. It was a surface where Joe Root’s part-time off-spin accounted for five scalps. The fourth Test’s pitch – a different strip made of black clay soil – has been an upgrade on what was on offer at this venue a week ago. The tourists went with just three frontline bowlers. Dom Bess was included as Jack Leach’s spin partner. James Anderson was the only fast bowler. On paper, Ben Stokes provides the second pace option, but the allrounder’s bowling activity has been limited over the last one season. Also, as the ECB informed, Stokes “has had a stomach upset”. It, however, didn’t prevent him from scoring a half-century and he bowled two overs late in the day before Leach was brought into the attack.
Jofra Archer missed the game “due to his ongoing right elbow issue”. But England had Olly Stone and Mark Wood to choose from. On the best batting surface since the first Test, England saw the apparition of the ball turning square.
On Day 1, the two Indian fast bowlers – Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj – bowled 23 overs between them. Ishant extracted bounce; Rishabh Pant collecting some deliveries above his head. He also got a bit of reverse swing late into the second session. Siraj was sharp off the deck and got inward movement. His bowling and wickets of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow showed how England missed a trick by being pace-thin.
Premeditated approach: As if somebody told some of England’s batsmen that using the feet was the magic mantra for success, especially against Axar. Crawley, who impressed during his half-century in the first innings of the last Test, blindly charged down the track to an Axar delivery that the left-arm spinner had pushed through. He wasn’t to the pitch of the ball but still went full throttle, miscuing it to Siraj at mid-off.
Lawrence at No. 7 was playing a fine innings. He was using his feet judiciously and also the depth of the crease. Before the tea interval, he hit Axar for a four over mid-off and then went deep into the crease to play a magnificent cover drive for another boundary. But on 46, Lawrence made one advancement too many, as if stepping out was a compulsion. He picked the wrong ball. Axar had held it back a little and the delivery also turned a wee bit after pitching. Pant had an easy stumping.
Intent minus temperament: Stokes’ dismissal was down to nice setting-up by Washington Sundar. The England allrounder was batting well. For someone with excellent reach, why he had been crease-bound in the last two matches was anybody’s guess. On Thursday, he was neutralising spin through his reach, decisiveness and class. He was ready to use his feet. And when on the back foot, he was decisively back. Stokes was taking the attack to India by targeting the hittable deliveries.
Virat Kohli made a smart bowling change from the Reliance End, brining on Washington. His fast off-spin proved to be an impediment to Stokes’ comfortable forward press. Washington bowled a series of off-breaks before bringing one into the left-hander with the arm. Stokes, for once, was stuck in the crease and was trapped plumb in front.
Stokes’ 55, including six fours and two sixes, had been a fine effort. But a player of his quality probably should have pre-empted Washington’s armer. Bairstow, Lawrence and Ollie Pope, too, got starts, attesting that the pitch was pretty good for batting. All of them got out at the wrong time. England’s batting on the day had intent minus temperament.
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