Nothing is easy for England now. Just when they had scrambled their way back yesterday by dint of hard toil, studious application and opposition errors it all went haywire.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that they can save, if not win, the first Test of this Investec series but the way things are going they could swiftly diminish. India’s total of 457 was bad enough, being created as it was by a partnership of 111 for the last wicket, but still worse was to follow.
In the fourth over of England’s first innings, their captain, Alastair Cook, desperately short of form and fortune, was bowled off his thigh pad as he moved across his stumps. It was a strange, unlucky way to depart but Cook is in that sort of run where it almost does not matter how he is dismissed before the shine is off the ball. The only sure thing is that it will happen.
Cook’s scores in his five Test innings this season since being given the full backing of the selectors, the selectors’ bosses and the selectors’ bosses’ bosses have been 17, 28, 17, 16 and five. In the five before that, in Australia, they were nought, 27, 51, seven and seven. It cannot go on like this, although he has continued to receive regular support and votes of confidence.
The feeling grows that when the holed ship has sunk below the water line and the band is playing on, somebody will pop up to insist that the captain flailing about in the choppy seas is just the man to steady the craft. Before this match Cook was as sanguine and resolute as he has been throughout this increasingly grotesque period of an illustrious career but he will also be aware now that his poor returns are bound to have an effect on the morale of his inexperienced batting side.
They will all know him by reputation as the man who has scored more Test hundreds for England than anybody else but the last of the 25 was 25 innings ago. Cook is painfully aware that he is not setting the example for a side still trying to establish themselves.
England managed to negotiate the rest of the second day without further mishap as Sam Robson and Gary Ballance were diligent in defence. They ended on 43 for one, still 414 behind.
How different it might have been. Shortly after lunch, Cook’s busy, practical, defiant captaincy had seemed to pay astonishing dividends. Helped by some casual batting from the tourists – for which England’s diligence may have been the catalyst – four wickets fell for two runs in 21 balls.
In all India had gone from 304 for 4 in the morning session to 346 for nine. The total of 450 which they probably sought was hopelessly out of sight. All England needed was one measly wicket. It never came. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, Nos 9 and 11, assembled an untroubled, largely orthodox partnership in which their defences were solid and their attacking shots crisp.
Cook continued to rotate his bowlers but their previous gusto was soon expended as the batsmen realised that the pitch remained lifeless. They were not remotely disturbed by the fancy field settings which Cook devised, this one comprising three silly mid-ons at varying angles.
Kumar began by protecting Shami from the strike but when it was clear that Shami was perfectly at home, displaying some wristy flicks, it became a partnership of equals. It was the third time in three seasons that England had conceded a partnership of more than 100 for the 10th wicket following the 143 by Denesh Ramdin and Tinoi Best for West Indies at Edgbaston in 2012 and the 163 by Phil Hughes and Ashton Agar for Australia at Trent Bridge last summer.
In the 157th over of the innings, the improbable figure of Shami – previous highest first-class score 33 – brought up the 100 stand with a six down the ground off Jimmy Anderson.
The innings was terminated by a wicket for Moeen Ali, who was driven high to mid-on by Kumar. That, in its way, merely accentuated again how much England are missing a genuinely minuted spin bowler. Moeen bowled 18 overs and conceded 97 runs. True, the pitch did not turn (the pitch did nothing much at all) and India went out determined to bully him but he was there to be bullied and seemed unable to respond.
If this series continues to be played on dry, slow surfaces, the selectors have to find a better option. Preparing pitches on which their seamers can operate with optimism rather than despair should be a priority.
It was to England’s credit that they kept going as they did and how they must have assumed the match had turned their way. Anderson won an lbw decision against Murali Vijay half an hour before lunch when the ball cut back. It ended at 146 a confident innings which contained 25 fours and although replays showed that the ball would have gone over the top, sympathy was slight.
India have obstinately refused to play international matches with the Decision Review System, effectively ensuring that it ceased to be the official policy of the International Cricket Council, despite incontrovertible evidence that its use improves the proportion of correct decisions from 93 per cent to 97 per cent. The Board of Control for Cricket in India no doubt has a cast of climate change deniers to boot. More decisions like this and they may concede earth is overheating.
After lunch, India collapsed. Ravi Jadeja was caught behind following one from Ben Stokes and in the next over MS Dhoni, set fair for a hundred, was run out by a direct hit from Anderson as he went for a sharp, over-confident single. In the over after that Stuart Binny sliced a wide Stokes half-volley to point and then Ishant Sharma was bowled by Stuart Broad shouldering arms.
Briefly, it seemed a simple game with virtue bringing rewards. Then came the resistance. And then came Cook, who clipped his first ball for a single and his third for four before his inevitable demise. A draw is still probable but debate will rage.