Equipoise: ‘balance of forces or interests’

(Thanks to a combination of visiting family members and considerable paperwork consequent on the recent passing of my uncle, no report today. Instead, I’ll leave you with one thought, which can double up as a prediction):

You have two options: You can play to win, or you can play not to lose. Throughout this Test, particularly with the bat, England have chosen the latter option, and by this time tomorrow the chances are the visiting team will rue it.

You can make out what stage a Test is at if you pay attention to the tropes that commentators repeat at various stages. For almost the entirety of the third session of day four, that trope was “England needs to show a little bit more urgency here”.

Indeed. The cameras kept cutting away from the action — which India slowed down to a crawl after tea — to the visitors’ dressing room, where a relaxed Joe Root enjoyed steaming cups of his preferred beverage. Out in the middle, Dom Bess practised his defence (and into the final hour of play, yielded his wicket to Ashwin and his place in the outdoor net to Jack Leach). Buttler — who acted more like Beach of Blandings Castle than the Jos of famed belligerence — looked intent on getting a good suntan before he heads back home at the end of this Test.

Meanwhile, the game went absolutely nowhere. The first ten overs after tea produced a grand total of 22 runs. England got to 160 — thus 401 ahead — in the 40th over. Buttler fell soon after. Between them, Bess, Archer, Leach and Anderson used up 85 deliveries (14.1 overs) to score 38 runs. In pointlessness, this outdid the 20.5 overs England’s lower order batted late on day two and early on day three to add 53 runs in the first innings.

If the point of continuing to bat was to extend the lead and put the target beyond India’s reach, you would have expected the post-Root batsmen to “show some urgency” — but no one seemed in a hurry. “Momentum” is a much abused word in cricket commentary and reporting, but for once it was the mot juste — England lost momentum in the post-tea phase of play, and that lethargy continued to show when they took the field.

Rohit Sharma — who, as Andy Zaltzman pointed out, is near-invincible against spin — managed to get himself bowled by Jack Leach, but his dismissal was foreshadowed in the way he batted through his brief stay. Sharma played determined defence to Archer’s first over; he then launched into a pull against the bowler in his second over that had none of his hallmark fluency. He then compensated by hitting the shot with trademark authority off the next ball, before shrinking back into his shell.

It was the innings of a batsman who was playing the situation, not the ball; Sharma batted as if he had mapped his entire innings out in his mind, giving himself a certain number of overs to get set. And so, to a Leach delivery that drifted onto middle stump, he reached a long way forward from the crease, his bat pushing well ahead of his eye. He never got to the pitch; that gave the ball room to pitch, turn past the outside edge, and hit the top of off. Classic delivery — but Leach bowled several of those later, to both Cheteswar Pujara and Shubman Gill, both of whom stymied him by using the depth of the crease to counter the turn.

Despite the loss of Sharma, cheaply, for the second time in this Test, India should be the happier side at close.

IN the morning session, India used up a further 21.5 overs, and added 80 to the overnight total. Washington Sundar, playing with far greater poise than most of India’s top five, drove fluidly on either side and off either foot; he hoisted Anderson and Root for straight sixes, and looked totally untroubled by pace or spin. Ashwin mixed stolid defence with the occasional crisp stroke when bowlers erred; the two put on 80 (178 balls) that worked against England in two ways: firstly, it reduced the number of overs England had to play with; secondly, it ate into the lead (England were 353 ahead when Pant got out and Ashwin joined Sundar) and made England’s target-setting calculations that much more difficult.

Taking that momentum — that word again — into the field, India’s bowlers kept taking wickets, Ashwin getting the first of his eventual six with the very first ball of the innings. This, in turn, meant that unlike in the first innings, England couldn’t produce big partnerships — the highest of the innings was 35 off 77 between Buttler and Bess followed by a 30 between Root and Pope. Once Root, the only batsman who played as the situation demanded (40 off 32), got out, England drifted — not out of the game entirely, but far enough to give India a decent chance.

India needs 381 more to win, but odds are, the batting side will think more in terms of three sessions to bat out, with the ability to reassess at the end of each session and delay the decision of whether to make a push for a result, or get away with a draw. For all the talk of the wicket doing things, based on the current state of the pitch, the lack of life with the older ball, and the way England bowled in the first innings, I really don’t see them taking nine Indian second innings wickets in the 90 overs that remain in this game.

So if either a draw (likely) or an Indian win (improbable, but not impossible) materialises, England will still find cause to rue the two occasions, once in each innings, when they opted to straddle the fence, instead of pulling further ahead.