Questions about the relative wear on the pitch and whether it was on the brink of breaking up remained largely unanswered after the second day in Chennai, but Ben Stokes hinted at England’s rather wait-and-see approach when he spoke afterwards.
After a sparkling 82 which featured a number of brutal slog sweeps that brought him ten fours and a six, and Joe Root’s second double century of the winter, England might have wanted to give an exhausted India, who have now bowled 180 overs, a little time in the middle.
But the wickets in quick succession of Ollie Pope and then a weary Root to timid forward prods that brought lbw decisions against them rather sapped their momentum and turned focus on an alternative way to win this match: batting deeper than usual to align any potential deterioration of the pitch more closely to the beginning of the India reply.
It is rare for a team to extend their first innings beyond the end of the second day but Stokes immediately rejected any prospect of an overnight declaration. “It was a great toss to win and we can’t complain,” he said. “It’s good to be heading into day three with some wickets in hand. It will be lovely if we can bat for another hour or so.”
Stokes had already hit a glorious straight six off Ravi Ashwin, a bowler who has tormented him in the past, to take himself to double figures, as England resumed having lost Dom Sibley to the final over of the first evening but any thoughts that and captain Root would focus on a measured approach went out the window when Shabhaz Nadeem was introduced.
Bowling over the wicket to the left-hander, Nadeem’s slow left arm began to find purchase for the first time in the game, particularly in some footmarks outside Stokes’ off stump. When one jumped almost to chest height, Stokes had to be at his best to stop it leaping off glove to close fielder.
“My approach changed when the ball started to spit at me,” Stokes told Channel 4. “I took the decision to put the pressure back on him. I had to decide whether I would rather be caught out playing the way I did than popping one up to short leg. I thought that I’d take some runs – not exactly before the inevitable happened but before I got out.”
Stokes did finally die by the sword, after an 118-ball effort, op edging a sweep to Cheteshwar Pujara at deep backward square, although the Indian middle-order batsman did need three goes at it.
But if England, with runs in the bag at that point as they closed in on 400 with only four wickets down, hoped that the deterioration of the surface would continue they were to be disappointed.
Root and Pope continued to rotate the strike well, however, and the procession of singles was only broken when, from nowhere, on 195, Root sashayed down the pitch to lift Ashwin imperiously over long-on to reach his fifth Test double century.
It left Stokes in awe. “He makes everyone look rubbish doesn’t he?” he said .”I don’t think we’ve ever had an England player who plays spin so well. He’s got a game plan for every type of spin.”
If Stokes, and Root, get their wish and Dom Bess, Jack Leach and Jimmy Anderson can hold on for an hour, we’ll see what India’s game plan against spin is, especially if the Chepauk pitch fiinally reveals its dark side.
Jingle by Men With Ven