England vs India: 4th Test, Day Three: Same Old (Strangely)

England finish the third day in a fairly handy position all told, a lead well over 200, two wickets still intact, Indian bowlers struggling for penetration (a mild warning note there), and with a pitch that should be starting to deteriorate towards the back end of the match. Naturally, this being England, it’s been done the wrong way around – the top order struggling and the middle and lower order scoring the bulk of the runs.

If England’s defeats over the last 18 months are taken as a whole, it is generally when the middle and lower order fail to bail out the batsmen. Nor can they be expected to on a regular basis, for the normal way cricket works is that the top order score most of them, and the all rounders chip in some of the time. Trust England to develop an entirely different manner of playing. It isn’t a sustainable method for a team to generate continual success, and England’s problems at the top are something that they are going to have to resolve one way or another if they wish to make progress.

Cook failed again, and whether or not he is backed from within, his lean run goes on, and even by the modest returns of the last few years (yes, yes, two double centuries and not much else) he is struggling badly. There remains little evidence against the supposition that he’s coming towards the end, and what he decides will be interesting to observe, for while the Cook of his best years would be a loss, it’s much harder to make a case for him more recently. Whatever the returns in terms of runs scored, he doesn’t look like he’s going to make a big score currently either, and that, perhaps, is the biggest indicator of his plight.

Keaton Jennings in contrast looked rather good today, comfortable against both seam and spin, only to then be palpably lbw when well set. There’s a degree of sympathy for him, for it does show the fine margins at this level, and for all his problems this series, his record isn’t particularly different to Cook’s – the problem for England is two-fold, not just Jennings. He may well join the list of openers tried and discarded permanently.

A surprise was sprung with Moeen Ali coming out at number three. Plenty of speculation ensued about Root dropping a place, with a consensus (which doesn’t mean it’s true) that Root had put his foot down in terms of his desire to bat at four. If so, he’s right to as well, for Root is England’s best batsman, and it is peculiar to use him elsewhere to attempt to cover up for the weaknesses of the team that way. If he scores most runs at four, bat him at four. The roles are slightly different, and if that means another is a slight sacrifical lamb to get the best out of him, so be it – it can’t be said that the current top order is working well at present after all.

Moeen may not be good enough to bat at three, but then who is? It’s not so many years past that plenty were complaining that Trott scored too slowly, even in Tests, but what England would give for that now is immeasurable. It’s also a lesson about those who happily waved off players who they didn’t like assuming that they were easily replaceable. As one selector memorably said of Graham Thorpe, “what does he bring to the side apart from runs?”. More runs. Runs England are consistently short of at the top, and the carelessness with which players have been discarded over recent times is a source of constant wry amusement.

The loss of Jennings just before lunch was compounded by the first ball dismissal of Bairstow immediately after. It can be a mistake to assume a causation that isn’t necessarly there, but it can’t be said that playing Bairstow with a broken finger has been an unqualified success. Perhaps it’s just one of things, perhaps not.

Root and Stokes batted patiently before Root was run out needlessly, and at 122-5 India were on top, and England wobbling. That they recovered is partly down to Stokes batting well within himself (again) but mostly Jos Buttler doing likewise. Buttler this summer can be put down as a success, and whether he truly makes a go of his Test career is rather beside the point right now – he’s doing well. He also found an able ally in Sam Curran. His dropping for the last Test was harsh at the time, but it is delightful to see a young player ramming the error down the selectors’ throats as he is doing presently.

For India, Mohammed Shami was the pick of the bowlers, but it was hard work throughout. They will feel the pitch has slowed and died somewhat, making taking wickets hard work. If they are correct, then a run chase is more than possible as long as they don’t try to force things, and that too should be at the back of England minds.

There’s every chance the day four crowd will be in for a treat tomorrow, for while England are now ahead in the game, it’s not so far that anyone will be feeling comfortable.

Game on.

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