England vs India:4th Test, Day 2 – Bowlers to the Rescue

First with the bat, and now with the ball.  England’s plethora of all rounders initially got them to at least some kind of score, and then today got them right into the game with the ball.  By the time India passed England’s total with 9 wickets down, Sam Curran’s knock had become ever more important, and for India, Cheteshwar Pujara’s century was every bit as critical – though in his case, at least it could be said that it is his primary role in the side.

Moeen Ali was the star man for England, which always provides plenty of entertainment between those who think he’s under-appreciated, and those who point to his away record (not good) as a reason why he shouldn’t be anywhere near an England team.  The problem is that both are correct, as far as it goes.  Moeen at home has a very decent record indeed, Moeen away does not. Replacing him for away tours is a perfectly reasonable response to that, but there is always a peculiar belief that if done then England’s spinning options will dramatically improve, despite all the evidence to the contrary over the last ten years when discounting Graeme Swann.  He bowled very well today, taking five wickets, which both suggested that England may have their hands full with Ravi Ashwin, and highlighted the oddity of England playing two spinners and then only giving Rashid seven overs.  Two spinners often looks a luxury in England, and in this instance appears to be more about shoe-horning additional batting all rounders into the side than any expectation about the pitch.  Still, it’s always possible the second innings will be more conducive to Rashid’s skills, though leg spinners do tend to need runs on the board to be most effective, something England have been singularly unable to provide recently.

Broad too bowled well, and tested all the batsmen, while Sam Curran was the one who snared the prize wicket of an oddly out of sorts Virat Kohli.  But England used seven bowlers, including Keaton Jennings, who must have dearly wished for a bonus wicket to cheer himself up, and it looked overkill, with Stokes too just bowling the seven overs.

Of course, having bowling options is a wonderful thing, and particularly so when labouring in the field.  It can absolutely be said that England have a pretty balanced attack, with only a real paceman missing from what ought to be a dream combination of seam, swing, left arm, off spin and leg spin.  Whether the personnel are all good enough is a different matter of course.

India’s small lead would have been a disappointment at lunch, and a serious bonus shortly after tea, as this game swung wildly one way and then the other.  A mid order collapse of England proportions followed by the tail providing immense support for Pujara when it had looked like England might gain the most unlikely of first innings advantages.  Pujara himself batted beautifully, in conditions that slightly favoured the bowlers, though not to the extent that these teams appear determined to portray.  His marshalling of the lower order eked out far more runs than it should have, to England’s frustration, but perhaps it should be looked at in terms of praise for him, Sharma and Bumrah rather than anything England did obviously wrong.

As to where this game is going, currently all the pressure is on England’s batsmen, faced with the infamous third innings tension in a tight game.  Jennings and Cook deserve credit for coming through a tricky 20 minute spell unscathed, but the deficit is still there, and England will need to bat extremely well to set India a target where they’ll feel confident in bowling them out.  For England to be warm favourites, they would need to set a target in excess of 250, and there isn’t too much confidence in the England batting order right now – at least not in the top order.

Jennings may well feel this is his last chance, while Cook’s declining returns have consistently left England a couple of wickets down early on.  Either way, if both fail tomorrow England will be in deep trouble, and it’s been a fair old while since England’s openers have truly set a platform for the rest of the team.  No time like tomorrow.

After two days, this is a competitive Test match, and may yet go on to be a truly absorbing one.  But for that to happen England will have to exceed expectations and get into a position where they have at least the prospect of a win, and a series win.  India may well be the more confident, and if they bowl well tomorrow, those with tickets for the fourth day could be cursing their luck once again.  These are two brittle sides, and if low scoring matches are often the most exciting, when it happens repeatedly it merely highlights the flaws in the teams.

Nevertheless, a far better second day for England.  Whether they can make it a good third day as well – that’s more open to question.

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India vs England: 1st Test day three

This particular Test has caused a mild outbreak of panic at BOC Towers, falling as it does during a period when all three of us are snowed under with work during what tends to be our busiest time of the year in our respective jobs.  Add into that 4am start times, lots of travelling and full days and trying to keep abreast of goings on in Rajkot appear to be a little distant.  In my own case, this week has been spent at World Travel Market at Excel, where international goings on allowed me to play a small joke on various colleagues on Wednesday morning:  “Have you seen the news overnight?  Isn’t it extraordinary?”, “Yes it is, I wonder how all the people on the American stands are feeling this morning”, “Oh I doubt they care too much, but 311-4 is a really impressive start”.

England’s 537 all out undoubtedly created scoreboard pressure, on a pitch that was felt likely to deteriorate, but India’s response has been one of outstanding batting and perhaps slightly disappointing bowling.  The seamers have been tidy enough, without being especially threatening while the spinners have been short too often, and badly used in at least one instance.  The stand between Vijay and Pujara was both essential and deeply impressive, slowly getting India back into the match, taking few risks and batting time.  Having reached 277-1, what followed was something of a surprise, for England had shown few signs of being likely to take wickets, only to snare three in little more than an hour.  If nothing else it was a reward for plugging away, and for keeping the scoring rate under control.

High scoring matches often appear to drift for large parts of a given day, as one side slowly claws their way towards parity and the other fruitlessly tries to stop them.  It’s why low scoring matches tend to be consistently exciting throughout, whereas with ones like this the viewer can disappear for an hour or two and come back to see how little has changed in terms of the balance.  The three late ones don’t exactly amount to a clatter, more of a gentle rattle, but they will have caused a frisson of anxiety in Indian ranks and raised the hopes of the English ones.  The pitch so far hasn’t been a dead one by any means, and there is both spin available and some movement off the surface for the seamers and rather more in the air.  It may be simply that both sides have batted well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

While Stokes removed the fluent Pujara, it was Adil Rashid who got the obdurate, yet intermittently attacking Murali Vijay with a delicious googly in his first over back just before the close.  And here is where even Sky felt it reasonable to offer up some criticism of Cook (before Rashid took the wicket, note) for not making more use of him and going to him as the last possible option.  It’s a criticism this blog has made repeatedly, and it’s not a matter of being wise after the event, it’s because there’s absolutely no point in having a leg-spinner if he’s not to be used as an offensive weapon.  England’s plethora of all rounders frees up spaces for luxury players who can bring something different, and a leg spinner is about as different as it gets for an English team.  Yes, he will go for runs, yes, he will be sometimes inconsistent.  But he’ll also get you wickets, that’s the whole damn point.  England have six frontline bowlers in this side, there are plenty of fall back positions should the leggie have a bad day – for him to bowl the fewest of any of the spinners on a pitch that is offering purchase is a waste of resource.

As for the wider question of where this game is going, as things stand the draw appears the favourite, but that is based on how the bat has dominated to date.  The behaviour of the surface is going to dictate much, yet with few signs of radical change to date it’s perhaps wishful thinking to expect it to drive a result on its own over the next two days.  India have plenty of batting still to come but are also a sizeable 218 runs still in arrears.  Should they get remotely close then the pressure will transfer to England as they will be doing nothing other than playing for the draw with the time remaining, while even if they only add another hundred it’s hard to conclude that England would feel safe enough to declare until some time into day five assuming things went well.  But perhaps given the kneejerk response to defeat in the last Test in Bangladesh, that’s still a position England should be pleased with.  The old mantra that they are never quite as good or quite as bad as the press portray them is as true now as it ever was.  All things considered, so far it’s quite even.

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