England’s batting – blancmange soft in the Gujarat sun – christened the Narendra Modi Stadium with a home victory inside two days. There’ll be tougher assignments for India at this mega venue – but perhaps not next week, unless England’s hapless hackers can develop a plan to deal with India’s A-Men, Axar Patel and R. Ashwin, who shared 18 wickets in the match and would have got 118 had they been available.
And yet the day started so well for Joe Root’s team, especially for the skipper. Buoyed by the dismissal of Virat Kohli in the last over of a tumultuous first day, England roared out of the blocks to snare seven Indian wickets for 46 runs, as even the set of batsmen familiar with conditions capitulated in the face of hard-spun deliveries.
If Jack Leach’s left-arm spin seeing off the out-of-form Ajinkya Rahane with an Axar-like skidder was hardly a surprise, his snaring of Rohit Sharma just as he was eyeing another 160-odd, came as a welcome relief to England’s suffering supporters. Then… a tale of the unexpected.
Captain Root did what many had advised him to do the previous day and brought himself on for a bowl, immediately spinning the ball hard to get drift and extravagant turn, Root had one of those spells that a part-timer can occasionally conjure – as Michael Clarke and Allan Border can attest.
No sooner had an Indian taken guard than Root was wearing that boyish smile he can still summon, as he presented the batsman a chance to admire the 110,000 seating capacity strolling back to the pavilion. Only Ashwin, channelling some of the aggression that brought him a century last time out, appeared to have a plan and he fell by the sword he was wielding, top-edging a sweep to Zak Crawley.
Root had five for eight, England had a foothold in the game and even Guerilla Hendo felt the warm balm of optimism flushing his cheeks – it was hard to pick out which was the more improbable.
None of it lasted.
Axar opened the bowling in England’s second innings and hit Crawley’s stumps with the first ball, won an lbw against Jonny Bairstow with the second, which was overturned on review, and went straight through the yawning gap between Jonny Bairstow’s bat and pad with his third delivery – “Jonny Pairstow” punned one wag, and they were right as he succumbed for a second duck in the match – his second pair in Test cricket.
If The Oval has the Stewart Gates and Lord’s the Grace Gates, Headingley is going to have to inaugurate the Bairstow Gates because they’re becoming an icon of English cricket.
Root prefers batting at No 4, but that’s a position in the order, not the delivery of the innings. He got busy at the crease and, with Dom Sibley soon caught behind to a horrid hoick, while the skipper and a positive Ben Stokes were in the middle, a degree of normality settled on an abnormal match. The 31 runs added between the two senior batsmen took England into a fragile lead and hope flickered again in lockdowned English lounges. But consecutive overs from the A-Men brought consecutive lbws and attention turned from sitting rooms to sitting ducks.
Ollie Pope looked horribly out of his depth, playing every shot in the book (and some not) often to the same ball, his reward a frenetic 12. Ben Foakes, as he had done in the first innings, reaped the reward of watching the ball closely, adding a 28 ball stay to his 58 ball sojourn in the first dig, but the rest? I’ll draw a veil to preserve their dignity.
Axar helped himself to a third five-for in four Test innings while Ashwin had to settle for four wickets under the setting sun and 400 wickets in his career. Sure the pitch offered help with some balls skidding and some balls turning, but there was drift and dip to go with the natural variation and barely a bad ball across their near 70 overs of torment inflicted on England’s “batsmen”.
Cue Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gil helping themselves to a few boundaries off Leach and Root (97 Test wickets between them) with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad (1,128 Test wickets between them) lounging in the outfield like the sleepy tigers locals are hoping will return to Gujarat. A pound for the thoughts of the selection think-tank.
All kinds of records have been broken for least runs in completed innings, fewest deliveries in a Test and most apologies to Channel Four advertisers and there’ll be weeping and wailing about the pitch from many of those wearing the flag of St George. But the hard truth is that England came up against two spinners who understood how to make the most of a challenging surface, who barely bowled a release ball and who have taken the home team to dormie 2-1 up.
India will simply say “Same again!” for next week’s Test (and it would be cruel trolling indeed were they to serve up exactly the same strip which has, after all, had only a day and a half’s use).
It’s a safe bet that England will say anything but “Same again!”. A specialist spinner will be drafted in to support Jack Leach, but whether Root trusts a slightly yipee Dom Bess or delves into the bubble replacements (if any are still in town) remains to be seen. From the named reserves, your correspondent would favour Surrey’s wicket-taking off-spinner, Amar Virdi, for a shot-to-nothing gig. Chris Woakes must be fancying his chances of a run out at last, not least because England need a No 8 – hell, give the leg breaks of Matt Parkinson a twirl!
Batting is more of an issue though. Whoever gets the nod (and don’t be too surprised if it isn’t the same top seven) there’s work to do in the nets on advancing towards the spin in order to smother it or playing back and watching it all the way on to the bat face. Nobody is saying either of those options is easy, but, with a bit of luck, it will negate the “Will it or won’t it?” guessing game that ensues when you’re pinned on the crease and the A-Men are bowling that line and length they so enjoy. Because if England play as they did in this match and India bat first and make a Rohit and Gill powered 200 all out by mid-afternoon, the two-day Test just finished will feel like War and Peace.
Whatever happens, Guerilla Cricket will be there to bring you all the gory detail.