As England were saying before being so rudely interrupted today, they are making their way back. The state of play against India remains intriguingly poised but the advantage and the momentum – the latter the most important component in modern sport – is with the home side.
Only 36 overs were possible on the second day of the fourth Test. Three wickets were taken, 124 runs were added, 67 of them after the fall of the third when what was billed as a passing shower became a deluge. It was time enough to learn a thing or two about some players on both sides.
Valiant attempts were made by the groundstaff to ensure that play resumed but after two hours they came to naught. The drenched outfield at one end of the ground, laid with new grass earlier this year, was cleared of most of the surface water but it was still dangerously slippery under foot. In trying so hard with the machinery available, difficulties may have been stored up for later in the match.
Most of the Brian Statham End was a sea of churned mud which will need some tender loving care without the addition of any more rain. Only cricket, even in the 21st century, is capable of creating this sort of kerfuffle. In the event, officialdom might have been wiser to call off play when the ground was a veritable lake 20 minutes after play was initially suspended.
India were doubtless much more satisfied than they had been on the first day, and in edging the only full session broke a losing run of 16. But it was not quite enough to alter the balance of power and when the close came under blue skies at 6pm with the outfield having failed to dry sufficiently, England were 85 runs ahead.
Perhaps they could sense the intervention of the cricketing gods. A year ago, England retained the Ashes on this ground, but Australia were denied a victory which would have crucially reduced their arrears only by rain. England could seal retention of the Pataudi Trophy with a win here but this delay and rain forecast for Saturday and Sunday allied to potential difficulties with the outfield may preclude that.
For the second day in succession there was some delightful fast bowling on view, this time from India. Skilful practitioners were responsible for both England dismissals.
Ian Bell, who had started the day in pristine fashion, suddenly found himself exposed by Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Perilously close to touching one away swinger, he was drawn into the shot next ball, saw it move late and edged it behind. Perhaps Bell could have left it but such balls in the corridor outside off stump act like a magnet.
More worrying was the dismissal of Moeen Ali. There is no doubt that mostly he looks the part in international cricket but as a batsman he is trading on his excellent rearguard hundred at Leeds in the second Test against Sri Lanka.
He has been dismissed a mite too casually on occasion and has also shown a lack of ability to deal with the short, fast ball. There was a classic example of the latter today, though in this case it was the bouncer that led to his departure rather than caused it.
Moeen worked himself into a dreadful tangle in trying to hook Varun Aaron but he was both late and uncertain in executing the stroke. It looked inept. Next ball, Moeen waited on the back foot in anticipation of another short one but Aaron purveyed something of much fuller length. The batsman played all round it and was bowled. If it was a model case of preparing the ground by the bowler, it was still a batsman being taken for a sucker.
It is certain by now that Moeen has rapidly improved his method against the bumper, particularly from round the wicket. Mitchell Johnson is in town for the Ashes next year and, watching the batsman’s present predicament, he will be pawing at the ground in lip-smacking expectation.
Moeen’s most effective response may be to eschew all attacking strokes against the short ball. It worked for Steve Waugh, the indomitable Australian batsman, after he succumbed to it a time or two early in his career.
At 140 for 5, still behind, England needed a period of consolidation. It was provided by Joe Root, who has made vast progress this season in the middle order, and Jos Buttler, who is in only his second match but might have been in his 52nd. Root played the percentages to precision and left immaculately.
Buttler’s reputation has been built on getting on with it but he took his time here, realising what England expected of him. They looked to be emphasising their control of the match when the expected shower came at 2.15pm. It did not pass, it stayed and it grew into a Mancunian storm.
The drainage system at Old Trafford was relaid at a cost of £600,000 five years ago, and while that functions with admiral efficiency, it could not overcome the new grass laid at the Statham End last winter. Instead of seeping through quickly, the water stood. The ground staff, in line with modern etiquette, had to be seen to be doing something and did it with vigour. Only in cricket.