Hinge points don’t always reveal themselves in real time; they are mostly identified in retrospect. But even so, the one that dictated the tenor of the England first innings was hard to miss.
A decent opening stand between Rory Burns and Dom Sibley, who looked set to own the first session, was spoilt by, first, an act of needless indiscretion by Burns attempting to reverse-sweep Ashwin and, second, by Jasprit Bumrah’s ability to do the obvious, but with an elan peculiarly his own — a fuller length delivery on the stumps at pace beat Dan Lawrence for pace and pinned him in front of the stumps.
A board reading 67/2 at lunch would have had the Indians tucking in to their carbs with some vim, after being asked to bowl first on a pitch that the curator promised would have something for everyone, but was already proving to have only one thing for India’s bowlers: pain.
Post lunch, Bumrah bowled a tight three over spell for 7 runs; Ishant Sharma took over and went 4-0-10-0 in an incisive spell that even had a batsman of the calibre of Joe Root on a leash. At the other end, Ashwin applied his own version of the tourniquet, his six over spell producing two maidens and just eight runs, half of those via a lunging drive by Sibley through mid on.
That period produced 18 runs off 11 overs, with two maidens; Sharma bowled 17 deliveries to Root for the grand total of two runs — and in this phase, the England captain was twice lucky against Sharma, once nearly chopping on, and then seeing an edge drop short of Rohit Sharma standing up at first slip.
“You can feel the pressure building,” is a commentary cliche, but here you could not only sense it, you could even measure it in KiloPascals. And then — after the Sharma maiden over where he found the edge dropping short of slip — Virat Kohli took both him, and Ashwin, off in successive overs.
There seems to be some preconceived plan to bowl Ishant in very short bursts. His two spells before lunch were 5-1-8-0 and 3-1-3-0. Post lunch, he seemed in fine rhythm when he was taken off after an incisive 4-0-10-0 effort, and the only visible reason is rotation by preprogrammed numbers. We decided to bowl Ishant in short spells, so…
At the end of that post-lunch Ishant over where he had Root in serious strife, the 38th over of the innings, England were 81/2 (Root 11 off 47 balls). 10 overs of Sundar and Nadeem later, England were 119/2 (Root 31 off 79); the singles flowed freely, there was a boundary ball almost every over (7 fours in that ten over span) and the Pascal gauge reset to zero. (There was an equally egregious example of this after tea, when India elected to open the bowling at one end with Shahbaz Nadeem — a case of taking off the tourniquet and allowing the blood to flow free).
ROOT, once over that Ishant-shaped hump, was imperious. He organises his game around simple, unfussy lines; always alert to the singles on offer (and with India setting fields that tried to straddle defence and attack and fell between those two stools, there were plenty of those going around); quick to identify the weak links in the Indian attack and take toll. His control of the sweep — a shot he employed frequently to clear the pitch of the ball and other debris — was a standout feature of an innings that saw him tick off his third successive century-plus Test score with the lack of fuss of a man ticking off one more item in his to-do list. Clean pads and bat, check; score century, check. Next?
They gave him a silver cap before start of play to mark his 100th Test; they might as well have made it golden to mark the unbeaten 128 (197 balls) he scored today, to go with his 426 from the two recent Tests against Sri Lanka.
The England captain was escorted to his landmark by the phlegmatic Don Sibley, who despite a rather clumsy trigger movement that sees him wave the toe of his bat at gully manages to bring the bat down impeccably straight. The Indians bowled 90 overs in the day; Sibley absorbed 47.4 of those overs, grinding the bowlers down without ruth or pity.
A hallmark of Sibley — who, if he keeps this up, will inevitably draw comparisons with Cheteswar Pujara — is his ability to play inside his own private bubble, uncaring of all that is going on around him. He was batting 26 off 93 when his captain joined him shortly before lunch; Root caught up with him just the other side of tea, on 55 (Root’s off 115 balls, Sibley’s off 189). And when Root got to his century, Sibley had by his standards almost galloped to 83, off 250 balls. It was not the kind of innings that brought you to the edge of your seat — the reverse, in fact — but it was invaluable in that it held one end up so his partners, first Burns and then Root, could flourish at the other.
The end of Sibley’s marathon was of a piece with his entire innings. With Root cramping in Chennai’s crippling humidity, the opener took on himself the onus of seeing off the last over. Earlier in the piece, bowling with an old, fraying ball, Bumrah had tested Sibley’s defence with a searing yorker that the batsman dug out he knew not how; with the second new ball, and with just three more deliveries to go in the day’s play, Bumrah produced another of those fast yorkers that tailed into the batsman and onto the boot, and this time it was too good for the tiring opener. A pity, for if ever a batsman deserved a personal landmark, it was the lanky opener who had carried his bat through three sessions.
BEFORE the start of play, much buzz centred around the debutant curator, who promised a pitch with “something in it” for the pacers at the outset and the spinners later on, while also promising full value for batsmen prepared to dig in. Less than a dozen overs into the morning session, you wondered whether that promise had come with a sotto voce caveat: pitch-predictions-are-subject-to-marked-risks-please-read-offer-documents-carefully-before-warming-up…
It’s like the time my wife and I, while wandering around in Rajasthan, came upon an itinerant “fortune teller” who told me I’d go to jail. I did, a few months later — while on a reporting trip in Bhopal, I got to interview the notorious Natwarlal (the original, not Amitabh Bachchan in greasepaint). That’s the thing about promises — it’s all about the fine print. “Something in it for pacers”, the curator promised — what he did not say was that the “something” would be leaden legs and aching shoulders. For some reason commentators refer to batting tracks as a “shirtfront” — in this case, appropriately enough given it was produced by a man who makes his living in the textile business.
Predicting pitch behaviour over a five-day period is always fraught, but still: Given Chennai’s heat and humidity, this one will get lower and slower. And drier. And that drying out of the pitch will make it dust up, creating roughs at either end. It will be interesting to see whether these roughs aid spinners in the latter half of the game, or whether the progressive slowing down will blunt their edge and give the batsmen time to adjust.
INDIA compounded its problems with some inexplicable selections. The top half of the batting, with Pant below Rohit, Shubhman, Cheteswar, Kohli and Rahane, is on expected lines. Bumrah — playing red ball cricket for the first time at home after 17 Tests abroad — as the spearpoint was always going to be pencilled in; Ashwin is another automatic selection, more so on his home ground. A fit Ishant would be another natural for his ability to bowl dry overs and pile on the pressure.
But Sundar — whose inability or reluctance to give the ball a tweak makes him effectively a slow right arm inswing bowler operating at speeds ranging between 90-95 kmph — is an odd pick given the presence of the premier off-spinner; a suspicion is that he is there more to beef up the batting and hopefully bowl a few tight overs to give the three main bowlers a rest. If that is in fact the thinking, then India picked a bowler because he can bat. Which is, to put it politely, half-smart thinking. And it shows in the analysis — 12 for 55 means that neither was the second offie able to reduce the workload on the lead bowlers (Sundar bowled the least overs of the five picks) nor was he able to contain the flow of runs (at 4.58, his was not an economy rate so much as a prodigality index).
And then there is the slow left arm of Shahbaz Nadeem, who did get 4 South African wickets in his only Test prior to this one, but who unless on a really helpful pitch is too up and down to be able to penetrate hard and often. Here he fulfilled one part of his role, bowling 20 overs — but in his spells after lunch and after tea, ended up releasing the pressure that had been built. For all anyone can tell, he might come in handy in the second innings — but on this pitch against an opposition recently forged to a fine edge by the Sri Lankan spinners, any second innings wickets could well be too little too late.
Meanwhile, a Kuldeep Yadav sits on the bench, wondering just what he has to do to get a look in. When India plays overseas, the management-speak is that he loses out to Ashwin and Jadeja because India only plays two spinners, but his turn will come when India plays at home with a troika of turners. So now India is at home; Axar Patel who was preferred (again for his batting and presumed control) is injured, and Kuldeep sees a bowler who was not even in the original squad get picked before him.
It’s odd, this. Rishabh Pant has work to do on his keeping, so India will keep him behind the stumps so he can work on improving because the only way you improve is by actually playing. Kuldeep Yadav has work to do, and India will keep him on the bench so he can work without the pressure of game play. That is Virat Kohli, speaking in tongues, offering two different types of reasoning for essentially the same problem.
It’s early days, but I’ll stick my neck out on this: As this pitch wears, the off-spinners will find it harder against right-hand batsmen in particular, because any turn they get will be slow enough to adjust against. And therefore, as this game progresses, India will increasingly miss the option of a bowler who turns it the other way, and threatens the outside edge of the right-handed batsmen.
The Sibley wicket in the last over of the day allowed India to go in knowing that the game-changing 200-run third wicket partnership was not going to continue into the second morning — but England now have a solid platform; Root — who, as in Sri Lanka, looks like the only possible mode of dismissal is a run out — is set and has the wind beneath his wings, and the three batsmen to follow are free-flowing stroke-players.
India has weathered stickier situations, and could well turn this around, too. But the home side is going to get no assistance from the pitch. It has to depend on the skills of the three lead bowlers — and they aren’t going to be able to do much if the field settings are as indeterminate as they were today, and the “game plan” is to hang around hoping that the batsmen will get themselves out.
Hope, as they say, is not a strategy.
(PS: My apologies for the headline. I am writing this after doing a sink full of dishes, and mopping, and vegetable shopping, and there is precious little creative spark left. 🙂
For in-the-moment updates of day one, here is my Twitter thread. See you tomorrow.)