YOU FINALLY have India on the mat. Unlike in Mohali, you haven’t made a hash of winning the toss. You’ve put 400 on the board. You have a pitch that’s been turning since the first session of the opening day. For the first time since Rajkot, India are playing like a team who aren’t sure of their footing in the game.
One of the Indian openers, KL Rahul, has been clean bowled by a sharply-turning off-break from Moeen Ali. The other opener has looked strangely out of sorts in the last couple of Tests.
Though he’s prone to pounce on the spinners as soon as they come on, here so far, Murali Vijay has looked more shaky than secure whenever he’s stepped out. And already twice in Adil Rashid’s two overs, Vijay has come close to getting out.
Both are miscues. The first falls just clear of mid-on as he tries to launch against the spin. He tries the shot a second time, this getting more of the ball, and as a result it trickles for a boundary but only after the mid-on fielder has given chase with hopes of catching it.
Vijay does manage to lift a half-volley two balls later over the long-on fence. But Rashid, who’s dismissed him twice in the series previously, is having the better of the contest. This is England’s moment.
It is one of those periods in Test cricket where, as Ravi Shastri likes to say, ‘something’s got to give’. This was England skipper Alastair Cook’s chance to pile the pressure on the Indians, and see if they break.
What does he do? He lets them go. He takes Rashid off and replaces him with Jake Ball. In a way, Cook was only following his captaincy template. He was bringing a fast bowler on to ensure he could establish control over the proceedings first before even thinking about making his move.
He was reacting to the 10 runs that Rashid had conceded in his fifth over rather than the wicket opportunities the leggie had created. It was as if Cook wasn’t prepared to, or maybe aware, of the control over the match that his team had already provided with their big first innings total, not to forget the assistance on offer for his bowlers from the wicket.
He still wanted to be doubly sure rather than go for the jugular, strangely despite being in a situation where his team has to win to keep the series alive.
As it turned out, and as is generally the case, once Cook had let the proverbial horse bolt away, all he could do was hold the door ajar and hope.
For Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara rode away with no fuss and by the end of the second day had taken the hosts to a rather comfortable position at 146/1. The two presently sit on top together in terms of the highest partnership averages in India’s Test history. And on Friday they showed just why. It’s not like England aren’t aware of it either.
For, once the two get over their customary nervous starts, they rarely fail to make the early hard-work worth it. To Ball’s credit, he did start off with two maidens in his spell leading up to the tea-break.
But it wasn’t too long before Rashid was brought back-the second over of the third session to be precise.
Somehow he didn’t seem as threatening as before, which showed even in his ridiculous decision to review a lbw call against Pujara when he was clearly hit way outside off-stump while shouldering arms to a leg-break of all deliveries that was taking the ball further away from the off-stump.
When you aren’t a spinner of the highest quality, what you thrive on is confidence, from the captain especially.
And that’s one thing Cook has done well with Rashid in the series. Even if he always had a third spin option up his sleeve just in case the leg-spinner lived up to his captain’s apprehension and was taken apart. He’s backed him a lot more.
And it wasn’t surprising to see Rashid struggle to bring the same incisiveness as the day wore on or bowl with the same confidence. Vijay and Pujara thrived on it, and put away the suddenly increasing number of loose deliveries that were on offer from England’s main spinner.
But he wasn’t the only culprit. On a day which started with Jos Buttler and the lower-order-Ball making 31of the most fortuitous runs we’ll see for a while at this level-pushing the score along, the bowlers let them down. Buttler finished with a characteristically flamboyant 76, proving to the English selectors that he might actually be good enough to be picked primarily as a batsman.
Anderson looking flat
James Anderson was rather flat with the new-ball even though he started with three maidens and returned for a poor spell later in the day just when Cook like so many times in his career wanted his ace seamer to provide him the impetus.
He dished out a few short and wide deliveries, which is generally what Pujara sets his stall out for, and the No.3 put all of them away. Even the short-pitched deliveries from the other seamers were either misdirected or too harmless for the Indian batsmen, even Vijay, to be too bothered about.
But it was Cook who should at the end of the day foot the blame for the insipid show.
He did admit to not being the ‘bravest’ of captains when asked about his delayed declaration in the first Test at Rajkot.
But being safe cannot always be an excuse for being stupid.
All’s not lost though. India are still not out of the woods, and England can only hope that their captain doesn’t stick to playing it safe on a day which could very well decide the fate of this series.