All this series, Rohit Sharma has looked like a man on a mission. A mission to score a hundred overseas. The Indian opener had seven to his name before arriving in England this summer, all in his own country. It felt – and maybe to the man himself – that there was something missing from his cricketing CV even though he has averaged in the late 40s in the five-day format for some time. In several innings he had threatened to make the breakthrough – most notably at Lord’s where he had hooked Mark Wood for six when he was tempted again and died trying.
Finally, shortly before tea four matches into this series and with the sense of theatre of a man who has scored three double-centuries in one-day international cricket, as well as five hundreds in a single World Cup on these shores – he shimmied down the wicket to Moeen Ali, and with the languid ease that masks astonishing timing and power, sent him soaring into the pavilion for the six runs he needed to reach the landmark.
As it did, you sensed the metaphorical albatross around his neck lift and set off on its own flight of fancy over the Oval arena.
England, who had watched with growing disquiet as first KL Rahul and later Cheteshwar Pujara lent Rohit excellent support in substantial stands that by an early close for bad light had built them a lead of 171, did at least have the boost of dismissing Rohit and Pujara in the first over with a desperately needed new ball. While the advantage is still very much with India, England wrought something from a day that was getting away from them.
If indeed it has been an obsession of Rohit to get his first Test hundred outside India, he does not seem to have jettisoned team concerns in its pursuit. He has, throughout, reined in his natural instincts to lay a firm foundation for his side against the new ball, an onerous task when so much Test cricket in England now seems to be played under leaden skies and bright floodlights, a combination that seems to extend the period when that ball will move around.
With a rejuvenated Rahul – who went on to reach the century he would have so relished at headquarters, and its associated ascension to the famed honours board – he has combined in three significant stands: 97 in the first innings at Trent Bridge, 126 in the first innings at Lord’s and 83 in the second innings here, while facing a deficit of 99.
Even when runs have been particularly hard to come by he has shown a willingness to graft; in the capitulation to 78 all out in Leeds he batted 106 balls for his 19, hitting only one four as he top-scored; only Ajinkya Rahane and extras also got into double figures.
It seemed almost inevitable, then, that this classy opener would achieve what he has set out to do and do it in such memorable fashion.
This is not to say it was plain sailing on the third morning – there were some plays and misses in the first hour, especially against Chris Woakes – but generally the opening pair looked solid, and England frustrated in conditions that should have suited their seamers.
It is arguable that England paid the price for not grinding down their opponents when they had forged a position of some supremacy on the second afternoon. In not so doing, they appeared to have given India the best of the pitch to bat on and, with so much time left in the game, the tourists did not have to hurry to press home their advantage.
Although Anderson gave England some hope by finally dismissing Rahul for 46 shortly before lunch – an excellent leg-cutter found a feathered edge – Pujara, coming in with eight required to wipe out the deficit, again proved what calmness allied to experience can achieve.
In fact Pujara, whose scoring rate of around 44 per 100 balls is 11 runs fewer than Rohit’s, was the more dominant of the batsmen in the early stages of their 153-run stand for the second wicket: when they took lunch at 108 for one, having used up 42 overs, Rohit had added only 27 to his overnight 20 in two hours and when he reached his fifty, it had occupied 145 deliveries.
Pujara was finding the room for cuts and whips off the legs that got the score moving at a reasonable, if not hectic rate, and Rohit was not overly challenged in increasing his own boundary count to the extent that his second fifty took only another 61 balls.
Moeen, in particular, was milked as England, unable to force the breakthrough, started to look longingly towards the new ball from some distance out.
When it did come, after Rohit had added 24 more to his teatime score of 103, it came with significant drama. Ollie Robinson was handed it and although the first delivery with it was short to Rohit, the batsman was too early into an instinctive pull shot and the ball looped high towards deep backward square, where Woakes, running 20 yards from long leg, took a fine catch on the move.
Pujara, who had himself advanced to 61 from 127 balls in an innings that had included nine fours, was undone in the same over. This time, Robinson was more deserving, getting the ball to jag back, catch an inside edge and, softened by its impact with Pujara’s thigh, lob up to Moeen at third slip.
The crowd was up and Virat Kohli and Ravi Jadeja found themselves at the crease, both yet to get off the mark. Another wicket then would have really raised England’s spirits, but Kohli seems to have found his mojo now, with successive fifties, and he played a couple of the most pleasing cover drives off Anderson as his left-handed partner scratched around at the other end.
England’s impetus, however, was cut short by diminishing light and with 12 overs’ work on the new ball, Root seemed happy to stay out there by bowling himself and Moeen. Fortunately, he soon saw the idiocy of such a policy – which could have no advantage to England while putting wear and tear on the ball – and when he signalled to Woakes to get ready for a spell, the umpires called a halt to proceedings.
England had found a chink of light, but the glory belonged to an Indian opener playing his 43rd Test match.