Misery, multiplied

MIDWAY through the first session of day two, a Shahbaz Nadeem ball, from the Anna Pavilion End into the rough outside the left-hander’s off-stump, jumped off the pitch almost vertically, forcing Ben Stokes into a hurried fend. The interesting bit was the replay — a cloud of dust kicked off the surface as the ball hit it.

It was reminiscent of the kind of dustbowls India used to be notorious for before the BCCI began preparing pitches for its assembly line of quick/seam bowlers. But even by those standards, this was unusually early for such pronounced dusting — and given the weather, with a blazing sun baking the wicket by the hour, it’s good odds the top will go by day three and making batting an exercise in Russian roulette.

Ben Stokes — whose cricketing motto is to get his retaliation in first — played the definitive knock of this England innings. Spinners with this kind of a rough to work with love to get into a groove, and work on a batsman. In the past, such conditions have reduced visiting batsmen to sitting ducks. Stokes, relying on nimble feet and his long stride, unfurled a series of sweeps, slog sweeps and reverse sweeps that forced the bowlers to eschew the rough and try other lengths — which negated the benefit of the rough.

India did have its chances in the first session. In the 110th over, Stokes (then 32/61) mistimed a pushed drive off Ashwin, only for the bowler to drop the return chance. A couple of overs later, Pujara at midwicket grassed a much harder chance off a Stokes sweep, and in between those two let-offs, Joe Root — then yet to get to his 150 — was nowhere in the frame on a tight run when the throw from point, lacking both aim and direction, came in.

Just to rub it in, India burned through its reviews with the recklessness of a bad gambler, and then just on the stroke of the post-tea drinks break, appealed in vain after Sundar found Jos Buttler’s edge through to Pant. Sundar then got Bess miscuing a push only for Rohit Sharma at short mid-on to drop the simplest of chances. Sundar had taken a fair share of stick across two days; when he finally had a chance — two chances — to redeem himself, this happens. “One day you are a hero, the next day a bum,” baseball legend Babe Ruth once said, pointing directly at India’s spare offie.

The morning’s passage of play is best summed up in one over. An over after Nadeem made the ball spit out of the rough, Stokes played two fierce reverse sweeps out of that same rough, the second shot taking the batsman to 50 off just 73 balls. There is a story there: 36 of those 50 runs came from just 8 strokes (six fours and two sixes), almost all of them sweeps of one kind or other. The rest of the time, Stokes put his head down and defended with uncharacteristic stolidity.

Usko kuch bhi karne do, hamein udhar hi daalna hai,” Rishabh Pant exhorted Nadeem after yet another Stokes sweep (and he was right) — but easier said than done when you are in the Test team only thanks to an accident, you don’t know when and if your next chance will come, and have already gone over a 100 in your first 26 overs. In the event, Pant read the post-lunch play right — an over after his exhortation, Nadeem forced a miscued Stokes sweep when he held the ball back a bit and slowed the pace down; Pujara at deep backward square made a meal of a straightforward catch before finally clinging on.

The story of the 4th wicket partnership is best told through the figures: 124 off 221, of which Stokes made 82 off 118 while Root, content for the most part to roll the strike over to his effervescent partner, added 40 off 103. And a measure of Stokes’s value in seizing the initiative for his side is the way the Indian bowlers managed to slow down the pace of run-getting: At tea, the Root-Ollie Pope partnership, with Root taking the initiative after the fall of Stokes, had added a further 67 off 127 balls (Root 41 off 53; Pope 24 off 74).

THE standout feature of this England side as opposed to its earlier avatars has been their batting against spin. Too many visiting batting lineups play with static feet; this lot has been deft at using both the depth and the width of the crease, and unafraid to come down the track.

The player who best exemplifies this new England is the captain, Joe Root, whose footwork has been the best we’ve seen. It’s not that he takes a decisive step so much as a series of tiny shimmies, forward or back — if you only saw the feet, you’d take Joe Root for a favoured competitor in the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. It’s no coincidence that the only place his centuries dry up (3 in 24 Tests) is in, and against, Australia where the pace off the deck doesn’t give you time for such minuets. On a Chepauk wicket so slow that a batsman who misses with his first attempt can get in a do-over before the ball passes him, Root looked impregnable.

The problem for bowling sides is that Root scores with equal felicity on either side of the wicket — when he got to his 200 (with a waltz down the track to hoist Ashwin back over his head for six), Root had scored 53 through the midwicket region, 49 through the covers and a further 51 square of the wicket on both sides. Add incredible fitness to that mix — Root played out nearly 63 overs all on his own, and when he got to his 200 he had run 81 singles on his own account, besides all the runs he ran for his partners.

His dismissal — closely following that of Ollie Pope — LBW to Nadeem was the cue for an inexplicable period of play. As long as those two were together, it made sense of a sort for England to look for that 600-plus Root said he wanted. Once Buttler was left with the bowlers, facing a tired attack and a bedraggled ball, it made sense to take the game by the scruff and pile on the misery, then declare and get in a few overs at mentally drained Indian batsmen.

Instead, what we got was batsmen playing as if trying to save a game, not set it up. Instead, a combination of Buttler, Don Bess and Jack Leach used up 159 deliveries to add 79. Channelling Southey on the Battle of Blenheim:

“But what good came of it at last?”
    Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
    “But ’twas a famous victory.”

What was the point, really?

PS: My day two thread is here.