On a third difficult day on the trot for England’s bowlers, one which saw India cement a sizeable lead which still stands at 428 with seven wickets remaining for victory, there were some points of comfort.
Ben Foakes acquitted himself brilliantly behind the stumps, becoming the first English wicketkeeper since Alan Knott in 1968 to take three stumpings in a Test. Jack Leach, finishing with four for 100 to take his match tally to six, yet again proved his worth as England’s lead spinner. But arguably the most encouragement came from Moeen Ali, who took four wickets on day three, with greater control.
On the face of it, eight for 226 from 61 overs across both innings on a turning pitch is no reason to break out the bunting. But in his first Test since August 2019, and having not played a first-class match for Worcestershire since the end of the 2019 summer, Monday’s performance with the ball was the silver lining on a dark, dark cloud of an impending defeat and a squaring of this four-match series.
It was enough to garner praise from spin bowling consultant Jeetan Patel, who has been working with Moeen this winter.
“Initially he's shown signs of nerves, maybe a touch anxious how it will go for him, but as the game went on he was really positive about how he was doing his job,” said Patel. “If you see that it’s his first game back, you miss two weeks of intense training, does that prepare you to play Test cricket in India. His rewards show that he’s close enough, that he’s good enough and he will certainly be better for this hit out.”
The missed two weeks were the result of a positive Covid-19 test when Moeen arrived in Sri Lanka with the squad which subsequently ruled him out of the series. After missing the first Test, he was brought into the XI at the expense of Dom Bess who Patel confirms will be considered for a return for the third next week.
Indeed, there was some suggestion from Moeen himself that it may be his turn to return home after this match and return for the limited-overs leg as part of England’s 2021 rest-and-rotation policy to deal with a packed schedule. If that is to be, it will on 189 career wickets from 61 caps and, perhaps, a rekindled love with a format he thought about giving up last year.
“I’m hopeful, mate,” answered Patel when asked if Moeen has been encouraged to stick with Test cricket. “I love watching Mo play cricket. I love watching him bowl at any form of cricket and I think he has a lot to offer this group, especially around the changing room. So, I hope that it’s enough of a carrot for him.”
He was by no means consistent, as an economy rate of 4.41 in the first innings, when the game was most on the line, states. But there were hallmark seeds – such as the delivery to bowl Virat Kohli for a duck on day one and trap him in front on day three for 62 – which might reassert belief. Certainly, the reactions to them from his teammates suggest they were glad to have him around.
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“They’re amazing deliveries,” beamed Patel. “They shape away from the right-hander’s bat, they dip, hit the wicket hard and spin big. I don’t know what more people would want. I suppose the one thing that Mo wanted, well needed, out of red-ball cricket was a bit of love from the game. I think he’s got that. Hopefully, he will score some runs and really fall in love with red-ball cricket again.”
On the match as a whole, which Moeen has still a part to play with the bat, Patel encouraged England’s batsmen to play as close to their natural games. Though that sounds a tad at odds with the matter at hand, in the face of a target of 482 when the highest innings so far, India’s first of 329, was a struggle at times, Patel believes trying to simply hold firm for the next two days is the tougher ask.
“If we sit there and try and defend for two days we’re not going to have much success, we’re not going to go anywhere in the game. But we can certainly look to learn a lot about ourselves by scoring. I thought Dan Lawrence (19 not out) was fantastic, the way he played this evening is exactly how he wants to play cricket and how he can contribute to this team. It was good to see him go and do that.
“They’re in a really strong position, there’s no doubt about that. But we’re going to have to work really hard to grab some of that back.”
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