Alarming as it might sound to most of us, the morning’s news reports that an Instagram poster claiming to be from the future had come to warn us of an impending alien invasion would have been music to the ears of Chris Silverwood, who might have been inclined to ask any little green men who showed up at Lord’s if they had any experience with the Dukes ball. By the end of a day that India dominated on the back of a fine sixth Test century from KL Rahul, the England head coach, his team ravaged by injury and other misfortunes, would have been asking the extraterrestrials to phone home and squeeze him on the next Mars-directed rocket rather than having to front up to the media.
India finished on 276 for three after being put into bat, Rahul unbeaten on 127 after sharing in century stands with a fluent Rohit Sharma and rather more scratchy Virat Kohli. Only Jimmy Anderson, his fitness in doubt almost up to the start, took any real credit from a hugely disappointing day for the hosts, while Ollie Robinson got late consolation for his toil by inducing Kohli’s edge to slip with the second new ball.
But it was Rahul’s day and his hundred – his sixth – was a masterclass in Test batting from a man who in recent years has been considered more suited to the shorter forms of the game. His strokeplay had a delicate elegance about it, his judgement outside off stump was generally faultless and he adapted his temperament perfectly to the situation.
In doing so he gave the lie to the notion that players cannot modify their games if they have had a surfeit of white-ball cricket; Rahul, whose most consistent cricket recently came in the IPL before its postponement – although he did squeeze in a hundred against the county XI in the warm-up in Durham – would not have chosen an overcast morning with the floodlights on and Anderson prowling on the Lord’s slope as the ideal one in which to restate his credentials in this format.
Such were the problems England faced in the build-up to the second Test that Silverwood feared his attack could be shorn of the bowlers who have claimed more than 1,100 Test wickets between them.
So it would have been a massive relief that his leading man, Anderson, did not go the way of Stuart Broad, ruled out of the series with a calf tear, and was cleared to open the bowling from the Nursery End after Kohli lost yet another toss against England.
The home side made three changes to their Trent Bridge line-up: Mark Wood came in for the absent Broad while batsmen Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence were placed in the box labelled “revisit later”.
Ollie Pope, who has just recovered from a thigh problem, might have been included but was sent up to Derby to find some cricket, albeit of the white-ball variety, while Moeen Ali was hooked from the same pond Pope had jumped back into with the expectation that he would rise like the mythical bird that his Birmingham franchise is named after. Haseeb Hameed – who also scored a hundred in that warm-up match in Durham – could that be an omen – won a fourth cap, five years after gaining his third.
For India, in contrast, there was only the one change as Shardul Thakur was replaced by Ishant Sharma, a man with very good memories of this venue.
It looked another good toss to win for England, the skies so ink grey that spots of rain that had delayed it began to fall again as soon as the players got out to the middle at 11.15. The game did get under way 13 minutes later, but tight bowling and watchful batting meant only eight runs came from the first nine overs bowled by Anderson and Robinson.
We waited 51 minutes for the first boundary as several balls swung and seamed past the outside edge, but generally the England lines weren’t quite testing enough to force a terminal mistake and much was left alone with discernment.
When Sam Curran did stray on to Rohit’s pads for that opening four, the Surrey all-rounder had conceded only two scoring shots from his three overs but he lost his line spectacularly in the fourth and the Indian opener cashed in with a quartet of boundaries – only one of which, edged wide of the slips, the left-armer could be sore about.
The batsman began to prosper and England might have been the happier team when another flurry of rain brought a delay that turned into lunch, the hosts’ paciest bowler not used in the 18.4 overs of action.
Not that Wood looked likely to make the breakthrough when he was brought on straight after the interval because, although he was testing the speedometer by regularly clocking in the mid-nineties, his line was nothing like consistent enough to test the reflexes of the batsmen. That may not be surprising as quick bowlers thrive on rhythm – something that won’t necessarily come to order when you haven’t played a red-ball game for a couple of months.
Quietly, but with an increasing efficiency that included a four brushed to fine leg off Wood, Rohit moved to an eighth Test fifty, his first in England. Rahul had 15 at the time and watched in something approaching awe as his partner celebrated by taking another Wood bumper on and clearing the ropes in front of the new Compton stand.
He continued to manoeuvre the ball successfully, sandwiching the ones or twos with the occasional boundary and when he chipped a single off Moeen, moments after using his feet to strike a one-bounce straight four, an Indian opening pair had started with a century stand in England for only the second time 41 years.
Moeen bowled well on a pitch that had little for him, even drifting one past Rahul’s outside edge – millimetres wide of his off stump too – but it took the return of Anderson to give England a foothold in the match and ended the stay of Rohit, who was eyeing a deserved first century outside India.
Out of nowhere, he took one past the batsman’s outside edge before following up with another that seamed in, brushed Rohit’s thigh and crashed into the stumps, stranding him on 83, his share of an opening partnership that had reached 126.
Cheteshwar Pujara does not look himself at the moment and he survived an lbw review against Anderson before the Lancastrian got him to push at one and edge to Jonny Bairstow in the slip cordon.
Like a greedy cat hoping to lap up any leftovers, England’s tails were up at this point, Anderson turning the screw in a spell of six overs that brought him two for 17. But Rahul’s surety grew and even with his captain at the crease, he took on the role of senior partner, easing to his fifty from 137 balls just before tea.
Robinson switched to the Nursery End after the break, as Anderson found the energy for three more overs to complete a spell of nine, and although the Sussex seamer twice went past Kohli’s edge in the same over, India and Rahul in particular began to prosper.
Joe Root sought desperately for the magic formula, rotating his bowlers, rotating the ends they were bowling from, but could not locate it. Rahul moved seamlessly through the sixties, seventies and eighties, driving through the covers with effortless sophistication, and showed no nerves once in the nineties, which he departed with the deftest of cuts to third man off Wood to take him to his landmark, which took 212 balls.
Rahul’s acceptance of responsibility was reflected in his scoring rate. Before Rohit was out, he had scored 33 from 118 balls, but by the time the day was done he had added another 94 from 130. His first fifty included only two fours and a six, but by the close he had secured another 10 fours.
England had at least got through their overs quickly enough to get a bite at another new cherry, and Kohli, while by no means at his best, had advanced to within eight of a 26th Test fifty when Robinson prised him out, Bairstow taking another catch rolling to his left at third slip.
It lifted the crowd – any dismissal of the animated Indian captain will do that – but it was the merest sheen on a scruffy day for the hosts.
India will be keen to amass a big enough first-innings total to ensure they don’t have to bat again and if Rahul continues to display such keen intelligence and the masterblasters Rishabh Pant and Ravi Jadeja can play around him, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Silverwood may not have any genuine little green men to call upon but he may well require something from the annals of science fiction for England to get anything from this match.