Ollie Pope and Chris Woakes stood firm to prevent the wheels coming off England’s batting wagon as the middle order repaired some early damage to their bodywork and in the process showed that this line-up doesn’t have to be quite so reliant on the Joe Rootmobile.
Pope, the Surrey batsman, scored his first half-century in 16 innings, sharing in crucial stands with Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, while Woakes, who had not played a first-class innings since scoring 40 in the final Test against Pakistan last summer, motored to a 58-ball fifty, dominating a last-wicket partnership with Jimmy Anderson.
It meant England were able to establish a lead of 99, which was both much better than it might have been but not as good as it could have been. India reduced that by 43 without losing a wicket by the close and if they can push on to get a significant lead from a match that is balanced on a knife-edge, one or two batsmen may regret their profligacy at a point when England had gained supremacy.
If the hosts were pleased to see Woakes get the his game back on track so quickly on the first day, India would have been equally delighted that Umesh Yadav, another bowler whose skills may have been underutilised during a stop-start international career, showed that at 33 he still has some miles on the clock.
He threatened to drive a coach and horses through England’s plans in the first 45 minutes, picking up the wickets of nightwatchman Craig Overton and Dawid Malan and leaving England, on 62 for five, in serious danger of falling adrift even of India’s below-par 191.
Indeed, England added only 10 from nine very tight overs mainly from Umesh, who had Overton slashing to first slip and Malan very well taken at second, and Jasprit Bumrah. But the hard work was wasted by Shardul Thakur, who was very much the flat spare tyre in an Indian seam attack which sorely missed the mechanical accuracy of Mohammed Shami.
Pope took three fours – a clip an on-drive and a pull – off one Shardul over as the Indian medium pacer inadvertently gave the innings a jump start. With Mohammed Siraj, who had started proceedings with just a single over from the Vauxhall End, brought back at the Pavilion End, Bairstow, who had laboured more than 20 balls for four, also spluttered into life.
They added 41 in a spectacular 23-ball period, taking England past the 100-mark and by lunch had advanced to 139.
Bairstow had survived a close lbw shout and his only other alarm came when he seemed to think better of a short-armed pull and watched worriedly as it went at catchable height past mid-wicket, but, however well he is playing, there’s rarely a time when you think Bairstow will not get himself out.
Although a third interruption of the series from the increasingly tiresome imposter-cricketer Jarvo didn’t seem to upset him, he was furious when, shortly after lunch, he again failed to get forward and was caught plum in front as Siraj nipped one back. Not with himself or the umpire of course – it was clearly out despite his review – but with a steward who he thought had failed to prevent a spectator moving behind the bowler’s arm at the crucial moment.
The stand had been worth 89 in little more than 22 overs, but with England 40 short of the India first-innings total, Pope still needed support from the likes of Moeen and Woakes.
Moeen, with the new responsibility of the vice-captaincy, gave him that: cautious at first, he grew in fluency as Pope advanced to a well-deserved fifty, from 92 balls. It was a massive shot in the arm for the 23-year-old, whose difficulties against spin in India in the winter have been compounded by injury problems since.
He wouldn’t pretend that it was easy – he hit only six fours in total in his 81 – but will probably feel all the better for doing the hard yards; and one square drive, threaded past cover off Bumrah, will have triggered those comparisons with Ian Bell, so prevalent at the start of his Test career, once again.
Shortly after three o’clock, the pair took England into positive territory, Moeen’s increasing confidence bringing him two glorious boundaries off Umesh, a pull through mid-wicket following the most fluid of cover drives from a perfectly respectable good length delivery.
But, with Moeen, languidity is so often followed by laxity and, emboldened, he tried to slog sweep the economical but unthreatening left-arm spin of Ravi Jadeja and skied horribly to extra cover.
Pope and Woakes took England to tea at 227 for seven and it was Woakes that got his team going straight after it as well, taking three fours off a Bumrah over, the pick a clever redirection of a bouncer that didn’t rise as high as expected down and through the slips.
With the new ball only overs away, Shardul returned to the fray, determined to bowl wide to keep scoring strokes to a minimum. Woakes refused to be drawn into a false shot but almost as soon as Pope faced him, he tried a casual prod towards third man with no foot movement and dragged on. He reprimanded himself with a whack of the bat to pad as he wandered off but he had done more than anyone to put England in the position they were now in.
Ollie Robinson needlessly threw his wicket away trying to slog Jadeja as England’s understanding of the principles of how to grind down a team when on top again went out of the window and it was left to Woakes to shepherd Anderson; he did so brilliantly. By the time he chipped the ball over mid-on to go to a sixth Test fifty, he had hit 44 of his runs in boundaries.
When he was finally run out, chasing to the far end as he tried to pinch a single for the strike, he had scored all but one in a tenth-wicket stand of 35. What a hugely intelligent and impressive cricketer he has developed into, certainly on English soil.
And after his four wickets in the Indian first innings, he probably came closest to separating their openers again in the hour before the close, KL Rahul almost dragging a drive on to his leg stump.
Otherwise, however, he and Rohit Sharma looked self-possessed as the new ball resolutely refused to do too much in the evening sunshine and they have every chance of engineering the match back their way if it is equally unhelpful on the third morning.