English cricket knows full well how things can go awry into a Bristol evening. But Thursday saw India Women learn that lesson after they suffered a match-turning collapse of five for 16 in the final hour of day two.
At 187 for five, the tourists will rest overnight with feelings of regret. To say they responded to England’s first innings of 396 for nine is putting it lightly. It was a retaliation: Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Verma posting up an opening stand of 167 that felt like an angry retort to the temerity of Heather Knight to declare on such a good batting deck.
But Verma aimed to clear the flats to take her from 96 to a Test century on debut. Mandhana did not learn from her partner’s mistake and tried to do the same on 78. Nightwatchman Shikha Pandey did the very un-nightwatchman-ly thing of playing a shot back to the bowler (Knight). Skipper Mithali Raj misread line to inside-edge to bat pad. And Punam Raut offered no shot to one of Knight’s straight off-spinners.
Appropriating blame at this stage is always a bit of a fool’s errand, not least because the game isn’t done and we’ve already had two clusters of wickets - England’s four for 21 - in as many days that has altered the complexion of this fixture. Though, as the one in command, Verma’s demise might draw derision for perhaps being startled by a landmark milestone that ended up being detrimental to the team.
Verma moved past fifty with ease, thanks to nine boundaries in 83 deliveries which included a straight six over mid-off that she tried to replicate to bring up three figures. She was beginning to score even more freely off Kate Cross before mistiming to Anya Shrubsole, who made up the ground to take the catch. The surprise of the dismissal, gifted after 48 overs of slog, was the catalyst for England’s late rejuvenation in the field.
Maybe it was nerves. Maybe just the agitation of a 17-year-old. The only certainty, however, was that the dismantling of England’s bowling attack, whether striking through the line or clearing the front leg to mow across it, was typically Verma. And, really, if you can’t handle her at her skews to mid off, you don’t deserve her when she’s clouting Sophie Ecclestone over the rope at long-on.
It was Sophia Dunkley who had provided the most significant talking point before Verma. Another kid - of 22 - taking her talents to a new stage for wider recognition. She finished unbeaten on 74 having resumed on 12 as she and Brunt set about improving the overnight score of 269 for six.
Brunt lasted two overs until pad before bat was confirmed by DRS for an LBW that gave Jhulan Goswami a deserved wicket for her probing 21 overs, for 58 runs. But Dunkley worked together with Ecclestone for a 52 run stand before Shrubsole clubbed 47 off 33 in a 70-run stand that took England just shy of 400.
Within that was Dunkley’s maiden half-century, brought up with a typically sheepish grin and humble acknowledgment of its acclaim. On Wednesday, she became the first black woman to play Test cricket for England. Onn Thursday, the first to register a half-century in the format.
With her leg spin, she may also become the first to take a Test wicket for England. And possibly the first to register a duck. Therein lies the invisible pressure of breaking ground. That untold responsibility in everything Dunkley will go on to achieve in this format, no matter how much more or less of it England will play, or how well she will fare.
The exciting thing is, along with the talent, Dunkley has the temperament. A clarity that goes far in this particular game, and especially so in this format. She marshalled all who were with her, including seniors, and looked remarkably in control, through the selection of scoring areas or the immaculate balance of weight across her three hours and 34 minutes at the crease.
No surprise to those within English cricket, of course. She was playing county cricket at 15, made her first England appearance in the 2018 T20 World Cup and, off the back of the last two weeks of intensive training, was thrust into an important middle order role that she has already made her own. Technically, she’s already on the podium. Her on drive off Goswami to move from 62 to 66 was worthy of preservation in song.
There is still a lot to do to turn this into England’s first Test victory in five attempts. The data is in their favour: no side has lost a women’s Test after scoring more than 300 in their first innings. With India trailing by 209 and just five more wickets left, the opportunity to uphold that statistic while rectifying their own record is entirely within England’s reach.
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