If every underdog has his day then this was certainly England’s as Alastair Cook’s side confounded the almost unanimous pre-series predictions of doom to make a positive start to this opening Test against India.
A century from Joe Root, the Yorkshire batsman’s first in Asia, and an innings of character from Moeen Ali, who reached stumps tantalisingly-poised on 99 having never previously reached three figures away from home, helped England finish the first day on 311 for four.
It may not be an impregnable position. It may not even help them win this match. Yet it is certainly better than most expected after England’s recent woes against spin in Bangladesh.
Less than two weeks ago in Dhaka, Cook’s team were humiliated as they lost 10 second-innings wickets inside a session to slump to their first-ever Test defeat by Bangladesh.
That series, drawn 1-1 against Test cricket’s ninth-ranked team, was meant to act as a confidence-building exercise before taking on the world’s No 1 side in India.
Yet it had exactly the opposite effect as that three-day debacle in Dhaka unleashed predictions of a 5-0 whitewash here against opponents who have won 12 of their past 13 home Tests.
The doom-mongers would have no doubt nodded sagely to each other when England limped into lunch on 102 for three after losing Cook, teenage debutant Haseeb Hameed and Ben Duckett in the first session. The fact all three wickets were shared by India’s rampant spin pairing of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja was also a concern.
However, Root and Moeen kept their cool underneath the sweltering afternoon sun here in Gujarat to build a partnership that stood at 179 before Root was dismissed by the seam of Umesh Yadav.
England’s fourth-wicket pair had scored 107 unanswered runs after lunch to guide their side to 209 for three at tea.
It was a session that saw Root register his 11th Test hundred when he swept Ashwin into the legside. Moeen, too, overtook his highest away Test score of 68, which he posted in Chittagong last month, as England took control of this match.
Root’s dismissal midway through the evening session, Yadav holding onto a caught and bowled chance he almost dropped in celebration, saw England’s progress checked at 281 for four.
But Moeen, ably supported by Ben Stokes, ensured there were no further breakthroughs for India before the close.
The tourists needed things to go their way this morning and they got off to the perfect start when Cook, leading England in a record 55th Test, won the toss and gratefully accepted the opportunity to bat first.
Given India had won their previous eight tosses in home Tests, this was a notable early victory for Cook and his side and they knew they needed to cash in on their good fortune with a mountain of runs.
Things didn’t exactly go to plan when Cook, looking in poor touch, was dropped twice in the first two overs.
Hameed, too, was the beneficiary of a chance on 13 as India put down three catches inside the first half-hour of the day.
It was, though, perhaps a sign that luck may be on England’s side in this series after all.
Cook’s first life came from just the third ball of the day, Ajinkya Rahane dropping a chance at gully off Mohammed Shami.
Five balls later Cook escaped again, with India’s captain Virat Kohli faltering at second slip as Umesh Yadav induced another edge.
India’s tactics of opening the bowling with seam seemed to throw England, who had got used to spinners starting things off in in Bangladesh.
However, while Cook looked shaky, Hameed, his 10th partner at the top of the order in four years, looked relatively comfortable.
At 19 and 297 days, the Bolton-born batsman is the youngest opener in England’s Test history.
Hameed does not appear a batsman who needs all that much luck, his solid technique and calm temperament making him look a natural at this level.
But the teenager isn’t perfect either and he got lucky when dropped on 13 at first slip by Murali Vijay as Yadav saw another opportunity go down.
Hameed’s lack of experience was also evident during Cook’s erroneous lbw dismissal to the first ball after drinks that saw England slip to 47 for one.
Umpire Chris Gaffaney had no doubt the delivery from Jadeja was going on to hit the stumps.
Hameed, too, when asked by Cook whether to review sent his captain on his way. Hawkeye, though, showed the ball missing leg stump.
India, in their first series using the full version of the Decision Review System, could afford a wry smile at England’s expense.
Hameed then used up one of England’s two referrals attempting to overturn his leg-before dismissal to Ashwin 20 minutes before lunch.
It left England 76 for two and, after an eye-catching cameo from Duckett ended when he edged Ashwin to slip, England went into lunch three wickets down.
However, Root and Moeen steadied things during a wonderful partnership that laid the platform for an encouraging first day of this series for Cook and his team.
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