In a way, a lot of the worst parts of day four in Chennai, primarily England’s perceived conservatism, were India’s fault.
If you achieve the kind of things they have in the last month, future opponents will go about things differently. Like swipe, nudge and kick their way through 47 overs of their second innings for 178, with little intention to declare, to set what looks an overly cautious target of 420, as the tourists have done.
Because when you have batted out a final day in Sydney and threatened to chase down 407, and then go one further to bag a target of 328 in Brisbane to take a series 2-1 with your second-string, you are going to put people on notice. Even with a monumental 381 to get on Tuesday, an unlikely victory cannot be disregarded. Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara will start again on 39 for one, a hungry Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane to come. Rishabh Pant, buoyed by stellar hands in both matches against Australia, and further emboldened by a momentum-shifting 91 in this one, in the form of his life. Whole countries have gone into lockdown faced with similar, untameable threats.
The pitch is still relatively true, as shown by Gill’s unflustered 15 through to stumps, though the 21-year-old could make batting barefoot on a bed of nails look comfortable. With 90 overs (at least) left in the first Test, Pujara, on 12, has probably put his name down for most of them.
That said, Joe Root will face immense pressure if this anything other than an England win. But his trepidation comes from respect. The cards are still in the captain's favour, with enough time to create nine more opportunities similar to the one that saw off Rohit Sharma. A perfect orthodox spinner’s delivery from Jack Leach, who opened the bowling, gripped and bounced sharply past the right-hander’s defenses to clip off stump. With greater encouragement for bowlers by the over, all four results are still in play. We will be in a better position to judge Root and England in 24 hours but it is easy to understand the fear that governeed this day's approach.
Having established a first-innings lead of 241 after bowling India out for 337, England’s focus on runs shifted to time: taking enough out but leaving enough in give them the best chance of converting their dominance to go 1-0 in this four-match series. Along with the 13 overs on Monday evening, they should get another 10 or so overs with the new ball first thing on day five and 20 with the second one when it is available in the final session.
"That was about the plan, the thinking all the way through the day," said Jon Lewis, England's bowling coach. "The pitch is good but tricky so accelerating against experienced Indians in India isn’t always straightforward. I think you saw the guys play pretty positively, with intent to score, but within the constraints of the conditions."
As much as India were made to wait their turn, they extracted some joy from the third innings. Ravichandran Ashwin marked his 75th Test with a 28th five-wicket haul, taking six for 76 to subdue England’s early charge. And with a sharp delivery trapping Dan Lawrence LBW for 18, Ishant Sharma became the third Indian quick to 300 career wickets, after Kapil Dev and Zaheer Khan.
England’s main concern coming into Sunday was a steady partnership between Washington Sundar and Ashwin. Their watchful end to Sunday was with a view to chip away at India’s deficit, which stood at 321 when they resumed. Forty-eight of the 80 clawed back in the morning came between them.
They used the six overs until the new ball was available to good effect. Sundar who went to a second half-century with a crisp drive from his 82nd delivery. When the second new ball was taken after 81.3 overs, the seven-wicket partnership was broken, albeit five overs when Root turned back to the spinners.
Leach made the intervention, polishing ropey figures of none for 100 from his 20 overs as the first ball of his 21st caught the shoulder of Ashwin’s bat, Buttler charging out from behind the stumps to complete the dismissal with a diving take at point. He eventually finished with two for 105 – Shahbaz Nadeem caught Ben Stokes at slip – while James Anderson also got on the board, closing out the innings with two for 46. He, too, was indebted to Stokes, who pulled off a fine low catch to his right to remove Jasprit Bumrah.
It left Sundar on a new career-best of 85 and England’s openers facing a two-over session before lunch. Rory Burns was given a golden duck to munch on, Ashwin opening the bowling and immediately getting a delivery to rear up and take the left-hander’s edge through to Rahane at slip. A no-ball, one of 27 bowled by the hosts in this Test, allowed England to go into the break one for one, albeit with a 242 lead behind them.
They returned to go along at 4.5 runs per over, continually pegged back by an unflagging group of bowlers now in the field for the fourth day in a row. Stokes’ demise was key to restricting any flow. His 82 in the first innings was a shot in the arm for England’s 578 on day one, but he was seen off for seven with an edge through to Pant for Ashwin’s third. Root continued to sweep his way through 2021, taking 40 from 32 deliveries before he fell 160 short of a third double hundred, Bumrah forcing a reverse swinging delivery into his pad.
The intent ended with the dismissal of Pope (28 from 32), after he was caught trying for a second consecutive reverse sweep for four. With the lead at 371, Jos Buttler and Dom Bess picked up just 17 off 56 balls. A passage made all the stranger when the previous right-hander was trying to get slap the ball around as a leftie.
The pair then struck three boundaries in the next nine, taking the lead past 400. It was 408 by the time both fell to Nadeem, and another 4.2 overs for an extra 11, as Ashwin took two in three balls, brought mercy to all viewers wondering if they’d ever get the last two hours back.
The pay-off should be a third thrilling conclusion in as many days. After West Indies chased 395 against Bangladesh in Chattogram on Sunday, and Pakistan triumphed on Monday in Rawalpindi as South Africa momentarily dared to chase 370, all eyes will be on Chennai come Tuesday for a hat-trick of nerve-shredding finales.
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