If yesterday was a good one for England, hauling themselves back into contention having wasted first use of a flat pitch on the opening day, then today was the antithesis. It’s all very well to lament the advantage India had in the last match in winning the toss, and there’s no question at all that it very definitely was an advantage. But you have to make use of it. India did and England didn’t.
Day two was certainly a recovery, and at the start of play there would have been hopes that the damage done could be contained; bowling India out fairly cheaply would have evened up the game and allowed England a chance to win the match. As it turned out, it wasn’t quite a horror day, but it wasn’t too far off.
Ashwin, Jadeja and Yadav all cashed in on a surface that remained placid, with the England bowlers unable to get much purchase. Eventually, they reverted to attempting to bowl dry, with a degree of success sure, but by then the damage was done. Ben Stokes and Adil Rashid were once again the pick of the bowlers, the former ultimately picking up a five wicket haul with the two of them taking all nine to fall to bowlers. The temptation will be to blame the bowlers, which would once again be an example of making them responsible for the failures of the batsmen. 417 is far more than they would have felt India would score in their bleakest moments, but it’s still nothing more than around par for the conditions. Bowling dry can work sometimes, but with so much time remaining, India were perfectly content to accumulate, while England looked a team out of ideas.
If a deficit of 134 was about 100 more than England would have hoped for, a difficult position was not beyond redemption. The pitch remains flat, with little spin and little movement. The occasional ball is keeping low, but nothing more than could be expected on day three. There is the pressure of the situation to take into account, certainly, and India’s spin attack is overall better than England’s. This is no surprise, and is as it should be given the native conditions in the respective countries. Rashid has been excellent, Moeen and Batty a bit limited, though it’s worth noting that kicking stool Moeen has over twice as many wickets this series as specialists Batty and Zahari combined. Moaning and complaining about them is as pointless as moaning and complaining about the conditions themselves. What do those whining expect? A sudden superstar off spinner to appear over the horizon? There aren’t any, and while a case can be made that others represent a marginal improvement (Adil Rashid is rather more than that – not that it would have been apparent from the slating he received from those who should have known better), it doesn’t mean that these matches would be radically different, and nor does it alter the truth of the matter that England’s problems in this series are down to the batting not the bowling.
Being so far behind didn’t mean England were completely out of the game, they just needed to bat well to give themselves some kind of chance. And once again they fell short. Cook is a terrific player of spin bowling and has been throughout his career, and it is only two Tests ago he scored a fine hundred. Yet he’s also a player who can look thoroughly out of sorts in no time, and here he was all at sea more or less throughout his innings, twice surviving reviews before being bowled through the gate by Ravi Ashwin. Cook is getting stuck on the crease, neither properly forward nor back, and feeling for the ball. In this case he was beaten by the flight and simply played down the wrong line. For England to be truly competitive in this series they needed Cook to bat exceptionally well. It’s not worked out that way.
With Hameed injured, Cook’s opening partner was Joe Root, and despite some issues with his back, he proved to be the only light amid the gloom of an entirely expected clatter of wickets. After Cook’s dismissal it was Moeen Ali’s turn. There’s a curiosity that should come as a surprise to no one, in that Moeen tried to use his feet, was thoroughly beaten in the flight by Ashwin, and chipped it to mid on. Not a great shot by any means, but the usual queue of suspects lined up to attack someone for apparently being irresponsible when they get out using their feet. Given how thoroughly stuck England became against Jadeja and Ashwin in particular, almost strokeless at times, the intent was correct, if the execution was flawed. Immediately, Moeen was heavily criticised. The problem is this – it’s that a player who hasn’t exactly had a great tour with the bat but has scored not far off a thousand runs this year with an average in the mid forties is once again being singled out for criticism based more than anything on the fact that he was out to an attacking shot rather than a defensive one. Cook’s shot was at the very least just as poor, and probably worse, but it was a defensive one, and therefore given a free pass. Any batsman will say that they hate being out to a defensive shot most of all, for it is a concession of defeat to the bowler.
With Moeen’s dismissal in came Jonny Bairstow, a mere 20 overs after he’d stripped off the wicketkeeping pads. It certainly doesn’t follow that his failure to score an unbeaten triple century is due to that, but there’s a reason keepers tend not to bat high up the order – it’s difficult. He looked decent enough though, and was undone by one that kept low from Jayant Yadav. Bairstow did pretty well to get an edge off it, and no blame can be attached to him. Where he was unlucky was in Parthiv Patel taking an outstanding catch behind the stumps. It’s been a regular on here to whinge about the cluelessness of most commentators bar the obvious exceptions when it comes to the life of the man with the gloves. “Good catch” was about as far as the praise went, although James Taylor in the studio afterwards certainly got it, making up for the lack of effusiveness in the comm box.
The reason why the catch was so good is because it was low. It might not seem to be a big thing, as coming up with the ball is an article of faith amongst all wicketkeepers. The trouble is that all human beings anticipate based on what they expect to happen rather than what actually does. It’s why batsmen edge or miss the ball when it seams, spins or doesn’t spin – anything different to what he might expect. When coming up, it’s far easier to cope with additional bounce, as that’s the direction of travel for the hands anyway. If the ball keeps low, then changing direction is nigh on impossible given the miniscule time between noticing the bounce and having to catch it. As a keeper it always amused to be praised highly for taking a catch stood up where it bounced more than expected – it looks magnificent, but it isn’t that special a catch. Taking one low down like that is a truly fabulous piece of technique. Patel will be fully aware of how good his catch was, and his celebration made it clear that he rated it. It’s a shame not too many others do, for it was better than any number of spectacular diving one handers.
Stokes was the final man out today, again beaten by Ashwin who has bowled beautifully. He’s simply been too good today.
It’s hard to see how England will get out of this. It’s not easy to see how they will even make India chase more than a nominal total. It’s possible, for while Root is in all possibilities are there. But it will require him to get a very large score indeed, and at least one of Hameed and Buttler to do very nearly the same. Possible doesn’t remotely equal plausible, and the expectation has to be that India will go dormie two some time in the middle of day four.
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