The Oval is traditionally a “bat first” wicket. However, with early September conditions dark and broody when Joe Root won the toss, he employed the Lord’s “look up” rule, rather than the opposite, traditionally deployed south of the Thames.
There was a clear logic given the conditions and the dominance that his seam attack had enjoyed at Headingley. As ever, time and hindsight would reveal the wisdom of the decision.
Both sides had made changes. For England, with Jos Buttler awaiting a delivery from Mrs Buttler rather than India’s attack and Sam Curran yet to fire in this series, Ollie Pope returned, Jonny Bairstow dropped one down the order and Chris Woakes was preferred to Curran.
India, too, had changes to make in the bowling department. Shardal Thakur and Umesh Yadav for Ishant Sharma and the injured Mohammed Shami. A bigger surprise was the continued absence of Ravi Ashwin, Virat Kholi questionably reasoning that: “England has four left-handers, so a good match-up for Jadeja, with our seamers bowling over the wicket.”
The early efforts of Anderson and Ollie Robinson did little to suggest that Root’s choice was the correct one as India progressed steadily enough with little exaggerated movement in the air, or off the pitch, for the first eight overs. Frustration for the bowlers, a concerned look settling on to the face of Root at first slip.
Enter Chris Woakes. A man who has not played a county game since 2018 and whose last Test was over a year ago. It seems current form and practice is overrated, at least as far as Woakes is concerned, however. With the final ball of his first over he found the shoulder of Rohit’s bat from just short of a length and Bairstow took the catch with India on 28, which is precisely where they stayed for the next four overs as Woakes and Robinson probed and teased.
Woakes was finding considerably more movement than England’s opening pair, but it was Robinson, the hero of Headingley, who struck next, taking KL Raul high on the back pad. Robinson was convinced. It was umpire’s call on line and KL had to go with the score still stuck fast on 28.
The arrival of Virat Kohli to partner the obdurate Pujara did see the score card tick onward at last. Predictably, with India’s captain at the crease, England’s chief gun slinger Anderson was brought back into the attack for another shoot out. But it was Pujara who was too slow on the draw, snicking one that angled back to him into Bairstow’s gloves.
India did spring a surprise in their batting line-up, with Ravi Jadeja elevated above Ajinkya Rahane, perhaps protecting the vice-captain before lunch, which seemed to work well enough as he mustered just two in 19 balls.
By lunch, with India on 54 for three, Root will have still been looking up, perhaps in relief, but one each for Anderson, Robinson and the prodigal Woakes had justified that decision to bowl.
Woakes and Overton led the line for England after lunch as Kohli settled back in and Jadeja seemed secure enough in support, although in his second over after the resumption Woakes found a Kohli edge, only for Root to dive late and see it slip through. With Kohli on 23, the oohs of exasperation from England supporters suggested they knew that Virat was in tidy touch.
Kohli did indeed reach his second fifty of the tour, although he had lost the company of Jadeja, again off the final ball of a Woakes over, Root taking a more difficult catch this time off Jadeja’s edge.
However, having made his half century, Robinson found perfect length and movement to confound Kohli’s attempted turn to leg and the ball took the outside of the splice through to Bairstow, who like Buttler at Headingley, was busy and effective behind the stumps.
England’s tails were well and truly up, but they maintained their discipline and relentless line superbly. Rahane soon fell to a superb slip catch by Moeen Ali, patrolling unusual territory for him. Pant, after a watchful start, looked to counterattack, but as he advanced down the track, Woakes was too wily and his slower ball was toe-ended by Pant to Moeen at deep mid-wicket this time.
At 127 for seven, most observers and certainly the expectant Oval crowd, were anticipating a rapid denouement. But resistance in dramatic fashion appeared in the form of Shardul Thakur, who had read the Pant counterattacking manual to good effect. In full one-day mode, he swashed and buckled his way to 57 off 36 balls with 3 sixes and seven fours.
Swinging hard and high over to leg and blasting over mid-off he put a dent into Woakes’ figures. He also enjoyed an escape courtesy of Bairstow who put down a straightforward chance off Robinson. But Woakes was to have his revenge, trapping Thakur lbw and from there, India’s resistance crumbled as Bairstow dived in front of Overton to take Yadav’s edge. That followed immediately after a drop at slip by Overton turned into a run-out courtesy of a bullet Burns throw that caught Bumrah short and removed him without facing a ball.
With India 191 all out, Root and England will have been happy, although with plenty on offer for the bowlers, the question remained just how much damage the Thakur blast may have done.
We were soon to find out as England’s opening pair came and went in rapid order inside the first four overs to a double Bumrah strike. Burns was late on a full fast delivery, playing onto his stumps for five and Hameed, somewhat out of character, attempted a cut to a ball that rose too much and was too close to him, edging through to Pant without scoring. The disappointment for England will be that although later in the day, they had perhaps the best of conditions for batting. Their more pessimistic followers were thinking that at least a follow-on was out the question.
With England six for two, it was Yorkshire vs a fired-up India once more. As next man in Ollie Pope was seen to shuffle somewhat nervously in his seat, Root, supported by Dawid Malan, set about undoing the damage. Both played sensibly, with Malan in particular unleashing a glorious cover drive and pull to leg. But although Umesh Yadav and Shardul Thakur didn’t find quite the pep of Bumrah, with the score on 52, the unthinkable happened. Yadav, brought back for an over before the close, got one to nip back to Root, taking the top of off and middle. The world No 1 batsman had to go for 21.
Out came Overton as nightwatchman’ leaving Pope to to breathe a little easier and although Bumrah fired a quick and aggressive final over at Overton, England reached the close with no further damage on 53 for three.
With England’s talisman gone, though, India’s modest 191, attained with Thakur’s late and bruising 57, seems a much taller order than when Burns and Hameed walked to the crease. England will need others to contribute if they are not to throw away the advantage taken from bowling first.