India must have felt like chastened teenagers who were left to nurse the Friday hangover but they shrugged it off to remain in the hunt for the series equaliser. The self-destructive Friday evening did cast its pall on Saturday, a game that could have been sealed was left open to be tampered with and England fought back well but have they done enough to keep India out? Not yet.
The pitch has increasingly turned sluggish which in theory shouldn’t hurt India. Their problems against spin in the recent months have been largely with quickish turn and though Moeen Ali bowled smartly in the first innings, time will tell whether he can get the same zip off the track. There wasn’t much swing or seam either, and it might all come down to how the Indian batsmen handle match pressure. It’s not going to be easy but then as Ian Chappell once told a disconsolate Pakistan team which had lost a game they should have won: “You got to earn a Test win. It doesn’t come easy. Earn it.”
They didn’t cope well with match pressure on Friday evening, stumbling in a daze in the moments when they could have firmed their grasp on the game but would they commit the same mistakes again? But first India would have to take out that wonder-kid Sam Curran, who refuses to let any dire situation faze him.
On Saturday, the only Indian who could have done more on this wearing track was R Ashwin but he was hamstrung with stiffness and groin strain. The Indian dressing room guards its health secrets like communist Soviet Union did with Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Brezhnev, and other premiers, and so one can’t really be sure about the exact nature of the problem. He did try as best as he could in the circumstances but as Graeme Swann observed he wasn’t always finishing his action and unable to pivot smoothly. Not ideal, obviously. He seemed to get better after tea – some medical attention, presumably, but there was a bit more zip out there.
Without Ashwin at his physical best, Indians actually did pretty well to make England fight it out there on this track. There wasn’t much swing or seam, but Indian pacers did well to hit strangling lines and built up the pressure. If it was largely Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma in the first innings, here they found support in Mohammed Shami who amped up his game. Shami can be janus-faced, we never really know which version gets out there – the ambler or the bustler.
One good sign is the pace at which he runs in to bowl. When he is at his best, he rushes in and walks back briskly to the top of his bowling mark. Over the series, since his comeback of sorts after all the personal troubles with his wife and the public mud-slinging, he has been okay with the ball. He didn’t seam the ball around as much as the others in the previous games in helpful conditions and his series average of 41.5 before this game reflects that.
Credit to England for digging in their trenches. A more positive and confident team would have probably pressed harder but wisely, they didn’t try to over extend themselves. One man who tried it had his stumps cartwheeling: for some reason, Johnny Bairstow went for an expansive on-drive first ball after lunch and off the first delivery he faced but Shami squeezed the ball through the bat-pad-gap.
Alastair Root stuck in, doing what he does normally. A poke here, a push there, a drive now and then and he kept reeling in those steers behind square on the off side. With the ball not seaming around, he wasn’t in real danger of being lbw with the nip-backer though there were couple of occasions when he found himself in trouble. Bumrah and Ishant both pinged his pad but hit him too high. There has been a definite chink in Root’s armour in this series – he does get stuck at the crease and pokes at the ball but as ever he showed great heart in fighting through that phase.
Ben Stokes likes these situations – and he once again put a price on his wicket. For a guy who has all the shots, as he showed even in last series in India with couple of comatose knocks, he can pull down the shutter when its needed. He operates in two tempos; all out blast or all out graft and when he finds the middle ground, this England team is bound to prosper more.
Jos Butler has already shown why Root and Co. are desperate to hang on to him in the Tests. He knows how to pace his innings, a trait not that common around the world, and once again bide his time well, choosing the right moments to go for his shots. The seamers bowled well at him when he was new at the crease, when he does look vulnerable outside off, pushing his bat out on occasions.
Ishant went past the edge a few times and so did Shami but he hung on. It was a day even Keaton Jennings hung around for a while, making 36 and was the first batsman to make Ashwin stop and wonder. He pulled off a couple of sweeps – traditional and reverse, and he was the one who set the mood to fight in England camp. He fell before lunch but by then Root and Co. took over.
Not that England did everything right. Root ran himself out, responding to Stokes’ call after a push to midwicket. Perhaps it was the sight of Shami that prompted that call but this was a day when Shami had woken up from the right side of the bed, and boy, not only did he charge across, swoop on the ball but also fired in a direct hit. If any pop-pscyhologist was looking for a sign that showed India were keen for a fight, they don’t need to look beyond that sprint-and-throw from Shami. India are still in the fight, so are England and hopefully we would get a classic cliffhanger of a finish today.