On the first day of Test cricket after the start of the Hundred not so much separated the tectonic plates under cricket’s consensus as ripped them a whole new label in geology, the five-day purist may have been alarmed by England’s top seven. They had reason to be as only the openers had faced a significant number of red-ball deliveries since the second Test against New Zealand concluded in mid-June – and four of them, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Dan Lawrence and Jos Buttler, had not faced a single one.
That one of those who had faced among the most – Rory Burns (189) – should perish within five balls to a bowler who had not taken a Test wicket for 281 – Jasprit Bumrah – proved that the cricket gods have lost none of their propensity for wry humour, whatever the format, and that may be no bad thing in these disunited times, even if England are the subject of it.
If that was the gloomiest start England could have envisaged after their travails at Chennai, Ahmedabad and more recently Edgbaston, it was going to get worse – but not until England had flattered to deceive. The loss of six wickets from the ball before tea until 55 minutes after it for the addition of 22 runs made sure of that and only a cameo from Sam Curran extended the innings until half past five, leaving England pretty much an hour to find a response of their own with the ball.
They were unable to as Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul, the latter seemingly not bothered by being third choice opener after injuries to Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal, added 21 to leave them 162 behind with all first-innings wickets in hand.
Virat Kohli had called for “relentless madness” from his team if they were to win this series, and he certainly got the first part of that equation. India were brilliant with the ball, their decision to go with four seamers and just the one spinner emphatically the right one. That said, this wasn’t the easiest toss to win. Michael Holding had highlighted the amount of grass on the surface – 10mm he was told by the groundsman before the start – but the bright overhead conditions screamed “bat” and when Root called correctly and chose to, India’s captain claimed he would have done the same.
And Burns’ dismissal nothwithstanding, there was a pleasing solidity and discipline about the England batting, admittedly starting from a low level of expectation, and but for a worrying tendency to lose wickets around intervals – in an unseemly rush in that disastrous final session – they might have had an acceptable day.
Root wasn’t exactly the last man standing but it felt as if he was the only one.
England’s newest format, either its most loved or most despised, which continues alongside this five-match series until the middle of the second Test, was bound to cast a shadow across its rather neglected older relative and some senior observers of the game couldn’t resist finding some gallows material in it – the editor of the revered Wisden Almanack noted that England’s score of 36 for one off their first 100 balls was probably not enough to beat any team apart from the winless London Spirit – but it was by no means the only theme of the day.
Zak Crawley, Sibley and Bairstow showed some benefit from alterations to their techniques that gave them time at the crease if not ultimately showing weightily enough on the scorecard; India’s attack, meanwhile, indicated that it has learnt from previous tribulations in English conditions to the point that the selection committee was confident enough to jettison a player who had taken 32 wickets in the home series in the winter, Ravi Jadeja taking the one spinner’s position ahead of Ravi Ashwin.
Ishant Sharma was the other significant absence from the India bowling line-up and if Mohammed Siraj got the nod over such an experienced campaigner, it shows only the depth of ability in the squad and beyond. Shardul Thakur, like Siraj a revelation in Australia around Christmastime, grabbed the fourth seamer’s spot, while England left out Jack Leach – again – and bolstered their seam attack with bowlers that can bat, although only Curran at No 8 noticeably emphasised that.
Bumrah had not taken a wicket, because of rest, an injury, a wedding and what looked to an outsider like a temporary disenchantment with the game, since the second innings of England’s sole victory in India in the first Test at Chennai in February. But he showed any possible apathy was consigned to history as he set up Burns with four balls swinging across him before fooling the left-hander with a glorious late inswinger.
Crawley looked like a renewed version of the batsman who had struggled so horribly in south Asia in the winter and against New Zealand this summer, appearing much more assured on his favoured front foot – suggesting, perhaps, that it’s not the form of cricket you play, but the comforting feeling of bat on ball that is the most important thing; if he was beaten outside the off stump a number of times by Bumrah and Mohammed Shami that was testament to their control of swing and seam not his own inadequacies.
His new improved method showed a willingness to use a small forward trigger movement before taking a fuller stride to strike the ball on the front foot, while Dom Sibley had taken steps to close his stance, making him less inclined to point his right shoulder at the bowler and give him more chance of playing more regularly in the V between mid-off and mid-on rather than the one between mid-wicket and backward square leg.
Crawley played a number of his trademark cover drives with splendid timing but fell in the last half hour before lunch in a strange sequence of deliveries from Mohammed Siraj. Twice he brought the ball back wickedly into the 23-year-old, hitting his thigh as the ball carried on through to Rishabh Pant behind the stumps. India had two tries, asking initially for lbw and then for a catch behind – it was neither on review – but next ball, the same thing happened and although this appeal was far less convincing, the review less confident, ultra edge revealed that the ball had flicked the inside of Crawley’s bat.
When Sibley couldn’t resist a ball swinging down his leg-side from Shami shortly after the interval he clipped his favourite shot into the hands of short mid-wicket, deliberately placed there, for a disappointing end to a burgeoning innings.
That reunited the two Yorkshiremen, Root and Bairstow, after their very different franchise experiences – Root was not needed to bat in the first and and failed to score in the second of his two matches while Bairstow hit a couple of typically boisterous fifties – and while their partnership was not supercharged and lacked a bit on the fire front, it did produce 72 runs in a little over 23 overs for the fourth wicket.
But just when it appeared Bairstow was finding the kind of timing that seems second nature to him in the white-ball arena, his own technical adaptation of moving further to off and keeping bat closer to pad let him down as Shami grabbed a second wicket by trapping him in front.
It was a terrible way for England to go to tea but when Dan Lawrence went to the final ball of the same bowler’s interrupted over straight after it, caught down the leg-side, England followers would have felt a familiar unease stirring in their gut.
Buttler, whose last red-ball outing stretches back to the first Test in India, lost patience after 17 scoreless deliveries, edging Bumrah’s outswinger to Pant and when Root finally fell shortly afterwards to Shardul Thakur after a patient 60 in which he had still managed some top-class cover drives, the game was almost up.
Ollie Robinson flapped a weak pull to mid-on off the same bowler from his third ball and Thakur, who may have sacrificed a little pace for the away swing that he was getting, had the right reward for his consistency. Curran slapped entertainingly, four fours and a six in his unbeaten 27, but Bumrah cleaned up Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson.
He finished with the best figures of four for 46 but he, Shami, Thakur and Siraj had hunted as a pack, each complementing the other. Shami, in particular, will feel gratified, having bowled so manfully in 2018 without the numbers to show for it.
None of England’s seamers was unable to discomfort the Indian openers as they toiled through 13 overs which, because of the slow over-rate, took the finish to the extra half hour.
Sky had opted not to put newest and oldest format directly up against each other – at least as far as the men’s match was concerned – so the start of Oval Invincibles’ Hundred match at Birmingham Phoenix was pushed back by half an hour to make sure fans of both would not be shortchanged.
Each to their own, but the editor of the Wisden Almanack may have hit the nail on the head when he observed at lunch that it had been refreshing to watch some cricket without constantly being told how good it was. Although it was – and it will be even better if England can get some early wickets tomorrow.