When it mattered yesterday, England were dreadful. India were superb.
The astonishing, unexpected gulf between the sides at the crucial mid-point of this opening foray not only deflated the criticism directed at the pitch, whose docility became irrelevant, but also indicated the scope for more turbulence in the game in this country before this summer is done.
The ill-disciplined approach which England displayed in the afternoon of the first Test in the face of some cunning snares set by their opponents betrayed a side that is distinctly ill at ease with itself.
They were short on method, instinct and endeavour in a way that merely showed how far they have to go to be anything like properly proficient as a top-ranked Test team.
There was more tenacity in the evening, built on audacity, which ensured that the follow-on, if not the match, was saved. But by then too much damage had been done, much of it self-inflicted, to make the next two days of the Test and the next 39 days of the series anything but fraught.
Joe Root, who played himself back into form after an uncomfortable start, shared partnerships which were almost swashbuckling of 78 for the eighth wicket with Stuart Broad and of 54 unbroken with Jimmy Anderson. They finished 105 runs behind, with plenty still to do.
It could be argued that England won two sessions to one. But how they lost the one.
It was also a pretty hideous day for the decision review system, or the lack thereof. At least one of the dismissed batsman would have been reprieved, another might have been. It is time that India, supposedly a nation at the forefront of the technological revolution, were told how ridiculous their stance is on the issue and that, in the catch-all phrase for sporting miscreants, it is bringing the game into disrepute.
But that could not deflect from England’s general ineptitude. The worst of it was that things went so swimmingly in the morning, when the risk of mistakes had seemed greater, and in the evening after they had been made.
Lunch was reached without mishap as Sam Robson and Gary Ballance added 88 diligent runs. It was pedestrian and anybody ensconced in a bar at that unlikely hour was equally unlikely to leave it to watch this pair negotiate the path out of trouble.
Both men reached their fifties in relative comfort, Ballance fairly racing to his by adding the last half of it in 19 balls.
Although Robson offered a chance to leg slip on 43, he was grimly determined and fastidious. He may be Australian by birth and upbringing but his English roots are on display when he bats.
Without warning or immediate reason, the Test was transformed. If there is a weakness inherent in this new England batting order it is that too many of its members are content to sit in their crease. The ball was just beginning to reverse swing when Robson, neither forward nor back to Ishant Sharma, was struck on the pad by one coming back and given out lbw. He thought he had hit it, the replays were inconclusive enough to suggest that he might not have survived a referral.
That breach was all India needed – that and a change of ball. Their captain, MS Dhoni, complained to the umpires about the old ball in the 54th over, presumably about its shape. Sharma, already in rhythm, was suddenly inspired. A ball to Ballance dipped and had him lbw when he played round his front pad.
Between them Ian Bell and Moeen Ali played some sumptuous strokes. Bell unleashed the late cut which had been the mark of his great innings against Australia on the ground last year. Ali played a couple of sizzling off-side drives.
Then the sentence beginning with the words “as so often before Bell made a silly mistake after looking like a million dollars” had to be dusted off again. He essayed a cut against Sharma, thought the better of it but decided too late to pull out of the shot as the ball grazed the face of the bat on the way through to Dhoni, the wicketkeeper.
Ali was out clumsily, turning his back and closing his eyes on a short ball which, surprise, surprise, did not lift as it might have done, hit his gloves and went to second slip.
It was noticeable that Dhoni had two, sometimes three slips for most of the proceedings, which was at odds with Alastair Cook’s field settings for England. Who would have thought that Cook would be funkier than Dhoni?
Matt Prior was unlucky, given out caught behind when he missed the ball by some six inches. If it was a poor decision by Kumar Dharmasena, the ICC umpire of the year, it would have been overturned had the DRS been in place, assuming England had some referrals left. Ben Stokes, hero of the winter, lasted two balls, flirting at one outside off stump and turning on his heal immediately as it flew to slip.
England were 202 for 7, trailing by 255 runs and heading for calamity. They had lost six wickets for 68 runs on the most benign of surfaces. India probed the weaknesses of individual batsmen and England did not respond.
It required an alteration of philosophy and in the absence of a better strategy, Broad came out slugging after tea. It energised Root too, who had hitherto looked distinctly apprehensive. Broad whipped the ball off his legs and stood tall to strike through the off side. Not everything made full contact but it was delightful while it lasted and his 47 from 42 balls took England past the follow-on target.
To his annoyance and surprise, Broad was lbw to Bhuvneshwar Kumar; it looked out and was out. Kumar is not much more than military medium in pace but he knows how to control the ball and move it both ways. England will not take him lightly over the next 40 days. They will be taking nothing lightly.Reuse content