As England toiled yesterday, patiently, forlornly seeking a way through India’s batting, there was the unmistakeable sensation of a missed boat. It did not appear to be around any longer. It had been allowed to sail out of the Lord’s harbour two days earlier.
But suddenly, in the evening sunshine with the threatened thunderstorms having never materialised, it flashed tantalisingly on to the horizon again. England had another chance to clamber aboard, change the direction of the second Test, the rest of the Investec series and, who knows, perhaps the destiny of their captain, Alastair Cook.
Liam Plunkett’s two wickets in two balls, the third time this season that he has achieved the feat in Tests, arrived during a crucial period when the tourists were again gradually and maturely seizing the initiative. It has been that kind of fluctuating series so far, probably because of the weaknesses of the sides rather than their strengths.
A third wicket swiftly followed, another reason why India are bonkers not to be using the decision review system. They stayed intact for nearly 17 overs thereafter, finishing on 169 for four, 145 runs ahead. Murali Vijay, the opener, was never other than poised, MS Dhoni, their captain was less secure but still assertive. It promises to be an enthralling finish.
The events of Thursday will either haunt England for ever or become irrelevant if never forgotten. There will be much for the selectors to ponder: the fate of the captain and the wicketkeeper, what to do about a spinner, when to rotate the fast bowlers, and possibly, if things go badly here, where the heck the next win is coming from.
How they needed Plunkett’s inspirational intervention. The match, inevitably, was joining the boat in disappearing out of sight. Test matches are not lost on the first morning but they can be effectively won then and England spurned the most glorious of opportunities on Thursday.
Winning the toss on a green pitch, they had the opportunity to have India’s batsmen for breakfast. The ball moved about alarmingly, any ball could have had any batsman’s name on it. Any full length, accurate ball, that is, but England were too short and too wide. They allowed their opponents to leave deliveries at will instead of persuading them to play.
In those two or three hours India made just enough runs and preserved just enough wickets to ensure their opponents did not capture control of the match. England were not out of it but by relinquishing such a golden, or rather green-plated opportunity, they made the taking of a series lead much harder.
So it was being demonstrated again yesterday. Some buoyant late- order batting, led by the effervescent nightwatchman Plunkett, had allowed England to take a lead of 24 runs. This was precious in the context of a contest littered with uncertainty and where the pitch, while diminished in menace, was not fully conducive to a sense of well-being for batsmen.
But India approached their second innings with diligence and composure. England bowled with much greater gumption than they had two days earlier but they were confronted with batsmen who knew what they were about.
A diving catch at point by Joe Root removed Shikhar Dhawan to give England their first wicket after 14 overs. This brought together Murali Vijay with Cheteshwar Pujara. They did not seem in much of a mind to go anywhere or do anything quickly. They were willing, though, to accumulate. There was a still abundant time left in the match. They foiled England. The ball was going soft and movement seemed to have ceased. It was a torpid afternoon. All India wished to do was create a winning position.
Plunkett had batted with unfettered gusto in the morning, looking as if he belonged on the big stage. Now, instead of the sometimes wasteful round-the-wicket attack with which he has often operated since his recall, he bowled fuller and straighter – and quickly.
Without warning, Pujara, a model of probity, reached for a ball just outside off stump and edged behind. He might have left it but it was a reward for England’s improved strategy which required nothing fancy. Next ball, Virat Kohli shouldered arms to a ball which pitched and seamed back slightly up the slope to take his off stump.
England were on a roll now and it was Stuart Broad who struck next. A sharp lifter took the first-innings centurion, Ajinkya Rahane, by surprise and the ball looped to square leg where Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper grasped a low, diving catch.
Rahane walked reluctantly, pointing to the guard on his left arm which replays confirmed the ball had struck rather than the bat. Strictly speaking, he was not out and it was a poor decision by the umpire Bruce Oxenford whose form in this series is on a par with that of Cook. But sympathy for Rahane and India is all but non-existent.
A referral to the third umpire would have had the decision overturned and Rahane would have stayed. But India steadfastly refuse to play with the decision review system. They get what is coming.
In the morning, England, for once, did precisely what was required. Plunkett soon lost Prior, though not before a series of blows which showed their intent. A last-wicket stand of 39, in which Jimmy Anderson again played a key part and gave England the lead with a shot down the ground, was extremely helpful. It may yet be decisive.