Day 3: Curate’s egg without the good bits

Image courtesy the Hotstar feed

FOR the third day in succession, the lunch break featured an extended clip from an interview with Shastri and Kohli about the recent Australia tour.

“How did you manage to change diapers when you were so engrossed in watching the game?” was one of the gems of the day from the interviewer. And Kohli responded, in all seriousness — calling on his coach as witness — about how his ability to adapt to different situations has helped him in his role as a new dad.

Never mind that if you were going to turn the first Test against England into an extended reminiscing session about the previous tour, a more appropriate interviewee would have been the man who led the side to two wins out in three Tests. Never mind also the ridiculousness of doing one fluffy interview and then dribbling it in bits and pieces all over the lunch breaks. At the least, could someone have asked Shastri to wear a decent pair of trainers or shorts? This image is pretty much how he was throughout. I mean, what is it with these micro-shorts?

Meanwhile, there was an actual game being played, and the deeds the serial interview celebrated was in stark contrast to the way the team — which, with the exception of Shami and Jadeja, is as full strength as it gets — has played these three days.

Rohit Sharma in his nth chance in red ball cricket went back to basics. Basic mistakes, that is. In Australia, he had been very careful to get the bat in front of the pad and play straight; here, he went back to staying leg side and pushing away from the body. He should have nicked off to the first ball of Archer’s second over; as it was, he managed to not touch it, stroked a silky four off the pads off the next ball, and duly nicked off pushing away from his body off the third.

Shubman Gill has incandescent talent. And a head in very good order — he is decisive in both defence and in the shots he choses to play, and he plays with so much assurance, an inevitability almost, it is as if time slows down for him. He played some dreamy drives and flicks today, but the shot that caught the eye was an easy, casual pull when Archer, in his first spell, tried a bouncer on him. Couple that with a moment an over later when Archer bounced again — Gill shaped to pull, read that the ball was climbing higher, dropped his wrists, broke at the knees and let the ball through with easy assurance. His dismissal came as a surprise — to the bowler, Archer, more than anyone else. The ball was just length, and straight; Gill had a choice of driving on the off, or flicking off his front leg. He seemed to get caught momentarily between those two stools, ended up with a loose push, and Anderson at mid on well inside the circle pulled off an excellent diving catch.

Virat Kohli, back in action after the debacle in Adelaide, never looked comfortable during his brief stay. Archer squared him up repeatedly; he pushed at Anderson and was lucky not to nick off a couple of times. But even so, his dismissal was bizarre. Dom Bess’s delivery was outside off, turning in marginally. For some reason, Kohli pushed at it with his bat facing point, almost as if he was playing for a Muralitharan-type big-breaking delivery, and at the point of contact, the edge of the bat was facing the bowler, and short leg was in business. Rahane went dancing down to Bess and got the toe-end of the bat, popping it up for Joe Root at cover to dive to his left and reel in a one-handed diving catch. India 73/4, losing both captain and vice captain in the space of two runs.

CUE Rishabh Pant. Cue palpitations in the commentary box. “He should be mindful of x… he should watch out for y… He loves to play his shots but occasionally he should play according to the situation…”

Means nothing, does any of it, because it is about how each batsman reads the situation and what he believes is his best response to it. If you were Pant, how would you read the situation he walked into?

England wasn’t really attacking — the fields were in-out to such an extent that for Archer bowling at his quickest and getting steep lift off length, they didn’t even have a leg slip for the awkward fend, a circumstance that saw Pujara escaping twice as the ball bobbed into vacant space off the splice/handle of the bat. India had pretty much gifted the opposition with four cheap wickets, and the bowlers and fielders were buzzing around as though the track had suddenly become their ally.

Pant read that and figured, nope, need to change that. And he did. He started with back to back fours off Archer, first glancing one to fine leg off his pads, then pulling out a crackling square drive past point. Jack Leach came on to try and hit the rough outside the southpaw’s off stump, and Pant countered with a waltz down the track, taking the ball straight out of the rough and launching it over long on.

“Leach won’t mind that,” the commentator said. Leach bowled the same ball again, Pant played the same shot again. Next over, first ball, same shot to the same ball. Next over, same attempt to make something happen off the rough, same Pant foray to the pitch to loft it over wide mid on. In between, just to mix things up, he went deep in his crease, let the ball turn in to him, and worked it behind square off his hips. By the end of his fourth over, Leach had bowled 11 deliveries at Pant and been taken for 30 runs. End of Leach (6-0-59-0); end of the threat of the left arm bowler using the rough — and as fine a demonstration of “playing according to the match situation” as you could find.

When Pujara got out, Joe Root figured it was as good a chance as any to rehabilitate Leach — Pant, he figured, would be a touch circumspect so soon after the fall of a wicket. Pant was watchful — for all of three balls, before he went down on one knee to scoop a four behind the keeper, then waltz down the track to the last ball of that over to put another pockmark in the stands over long on.

That is reading the situation, and realising that there is zero percentage to allowing a bowler free use of the one spot on the pitch from where something could happen. Sure, he could have gotten out to any one of those shots if he had mistimed even marginally — as in fact he did when, in the 57th over, he went down the track to Bess, looking for the inside out over extra cover and mishitting for the much-abused Leach to take the catch at deep cover — but so could he have gotten out, much earlier, if he had stayed rooted to the crease, letting the bowler use the rough to pinball the ball around.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on Twitter put it best:

Here is a story in numbers: Leach’s analysis when Pant got out was 8-0-77-0. Bad enough that England tried to shield him with Root taking the ball himself. After Pant’s dismissal, Leach’s analysis read 8-0-17-0. “He has found his line,” said a former spinner now in the commentary box.

The best way to appreciate the value of a Rishabh Pant in Tests is to watch not him, but every other batsman. “Pant,” said Murali Karthik in the commentary box, “was enthralling while he lasted.” Really? Between them, four out of India’s top five faced 71 balls and scored 47 (with Gill contributing the bulk of it with 29). Pant faced 88 balls and scored 91. Define “lasted”? And to add irony to insult, this from a team and its cheerleaders who fetishise “intent”.

Sure, you can sigh and go “if only he hadn’t gotten out playing that shot”, a refrain last heard when Virender Sehwag was in business — but on balance, which would you rather have?

PUJARA at the crease is monk meets masochist; discipline allied to an almost inhuman tolerance for pain. Both were on show during his 143-ball stay at the crease — particularly the pain, as he took blows to both his top and bottom hand, already battered by the Aussie quicks.

What was different here was that finding himself back home, where he is able to play with wrists at waist — instead of rib — height, Pujara was able to work the ball into gaps for singles with far greater ease, and drive with great fluidity on both sides of the wicket. He weathered Archer and gave the spinners scant regard, repeatedly coming down the track to get to the pitch, and picking offence or defence as length and line warranted. Like with Gill, his dismissal came as a surprise to the fielding side — Bess dropped short, Pujara went deep in his crease to pull, and the ball ricocheted off a ducking Ollie Pope at short leg, to Joe Rory Burns at short midwicket.

The Pujara-Pant partnership — 119 off 145 balls (Pant 72 off 70; Pujara 47 off 75) — put the pitch, and the bowling, in perspective. There are no devils in the wicket (at least, none that couldn’t be repelled, vide Pant); there was no swing, either conventional or reverse, on offer with new ball or old; and there was no real aggression by England in the field either, with Root for the most part sticking to in-out fields that would have been more appropriate if his team were defending 278 and not 578.

Washington Sundar, starting his innings in Pant’s slipstream, opened with a lovely cover drive off the hapless Leach to get off the mark, and then two crisp fours off Bess in the next over, with a square cut through a packed off field a candidate for the day’s highlight reel. Once Pant was out, Sundar settled into a more sedate mode and with Ashwin, who has recently rediscovered a taste for dogged crease-occupation, took India home on 257/6, the two not outs using up 122 deliveries between them in an unbroken 32-run partnership that ate up time England could have used.

PostScript: It all worked out for England, but I still don’t get the point of the 10.1 overs they batted this morning, for a princely sum of 23 runs for two wickets. Or of the final hour of play when, having got rid of Pant, they kept Archer away from the bowling crease till almost the very end and allowed Ashwin and Sundar to settle in nicely.

In the commentary box, there is near unanimity that England will not enforce the follow on. If England does in fact bat again, then what would the point of this extended first innings have been?

There are shades of rigid orthodoxy and of sticking to predetermined plans about this England team — and that could still ramify, to India’s advantage, as this series progresses.

PPS: The day’s Twitter thread here.