On arriving in Lilliput, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver discovered that the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians had long been at war over a fundamental principle. That being whether to crack a boiled egg at the round or pointy end. The objective for both was to eat the egg, but the Big Endians and Little Endians had diametrically opposed views on how to achieve it.
India and England clearly had similarly opposite views on how to win this Test match. The pitch, in this case, playing the role of the egg with Joe Root and Virat Kohli wielding their spoons.
England looked at history and statistics and felt that pace was the way to go, fielding just one frontline spinner. After all, in 15 previous pink ball Tests, fast bowlers had picked up 354 wickets at 24.47 and spinners 115 at 35.38. And in Anderson and Broad, England have the canniest of seam operators, with the pep and venom of Jofra Archer to back them up.
Jack Leach’s left-arm spin would be ready to march England to glory once the heavy artillery had blasted the Indian trenches to near submission. You feel that England would have followed the same strategy, even if Moeen Ali was available, or they had faith in Dom Bess to back up his erstwhile spin twin. The strategy had been pre-set for Ahmedabad even before landing on India soil.
India, with the benefit of local, and dare one suggest it, insider, knowledge, fielded three spinners, convinced that, as in the second Chennai Test, it would turn from day 1. The redoubtable Ravi Ashwin, flanked by the right and left arms of Axar Patel and Washington Sundar would outmanoeuvre England with turn, flight and variation on a spin-friendly wicket.
The toss, considered to be a key factor, was won by Joe Root, who duly batted. But that was about as good as it got all day for England. In the most splendid of settings, the newly-named Narendra Modi Stadium (how long before we’re landed with a Boris Johnson Oval?), with a passionate, although numerically restricted crowd, their strategy started to unravel, just as India’s was vindicated.
Dom Sibley edged Ishant Sharma to second slip for a duck, providing the perfect start for the man playing his 100th Test. Disappointment for England and Sibley, but some encouragement too. Easy to feel that “if Ishant can get amongst us, just wait until our attack has the pink ball in hands”. However, from there on in for England, neither Ishant nor pace partner Jasprit Bumrah would take another wicket.
Jonny Bairstow had endured a marathon journey to re-join England’s crusade in India, including a seven-hour bus transfer with no comfort breaks. He found little comfort against Patel, whose very first ball had him looking for turn to a ball that just straightened a shade and Bairstow too was gone for a duck.
A recalled Zak Crawley played the boy on the burning deck role splendidly, with 53 off 83 balls, as he and Joe Root moved the score to 74 for two and the picture started looked a little more reassuring for England. But after Root, England’s talisman, fell lbw to Ashwin, Crawley went in similar manner to Patel and from there only the redoubtable Ben Foakes showed any real resistance, although in distinctly defensive rather than offensive mode.
England’s middle order and lengthy tail tumbled, often playing for turn that wasn’t there, falling to a sorry 112 all out. Spin had nine of the wickets. Patel, who really must feel Test match bowling is something of a doddle, took six for 38 – he now has 13 wickets an average of a fraction more than 10 – and the wily Ashwin three for 26. Washington Sundar proved surplus to first innings requirements.
England had though, albeit unintentionally, set up the chance to unleash their big guns beneath the LED Ahmedabad lights. With such a low first-innings total, everyone had to play their part. Every catch had to be held. Key decisions needed to go their way and then, just maybe, something extraordinary might happen.
And here, it all rather depends on your point of view. India reached the close on 99 for three when it could have been five or six. Both Anderson and Broad bowled a little too short, Archer did not get the new ball, catches were missed, or dropped, two for poor Ollie Pope. England were convinced they had the stubborn Shubman Gill caught at slip by Ben Stokes, only for the third umpire to reprieve Gill with just one look at the monitor from front on. The decision left Root and his troops clearly angry.
Rohit was unbeaten at the close, but Leach, wicket-keeper and slips were all convinced the lightning quick Foakes had his bails off as his foot hovered above, rather than on, a deep footmark. The third umpire dismissed the appeal, again without recourse to a second angle as England’s increasingly presented the demeanour of righteous indignation and disbelief as each misfortune befell them.
Archer’s pace did do for Gill, but it was Leach who accounted for Pujara, bowling one out of the Axar Patel book, spearing it in and getting it to go straight through and then getting Kohli to bottom edge onto his stumps, the ball again skidding on rather than turning.
All is not completely lost for England or won yet for India, but you feel that tomorrow will start with the most crucial of crucial first hours that were ever crucial. England’s chosen weapon of pace and seam needs to come to the party. Root, who resisted bowling himself thus far, must surely provide some support for Leach. And a lot has to go England’s way.
As we stand, its Virat Kohli who will be savouring his morning vegan egg substitute, and Joe Root who will be wiping his from chin and cheeks.