Lower-order stands are one of the joys of cricket, particularly of the longer formats, in the way they subvert our understanding of the game; by outperforming their supposed superiors with the bat, tailenders break a taboo, provide an illicit thrill, like small boys giggling at a distant aunt’s funeral. As they develop, they create their own joie de vivre that is rarely permitted in other, more serious, passages of the game.
Of course, that feeling of exhilaration can pale if you’re on the receiving end of one – as England were yesterday on the final morning of the tightest of matches at Lord’s. It turned the game completely on its head and demoralised the home side to the point that they lost by 151 runs – a margin that they can barely have contemplated at the outset of a day when all four results were possible.
The staggering nature of Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah’s unbroken 89-run ninth-wicket partnership ripped the heart out of England as surely as the wickets that the same pair combined to take in the first two overs of the hosts’ second innings, leaving Joe Root in a position that even Atlas might have found troublesome.
When the analysts sit down to advise Root and his head coach Chris Silverwood on the way forward they will be forced to point to flawed tactics as England struggled to clean up what on paper is a lengthy Indian tail and a batting order without the technique to deal with an admittedly excellent opposition attack who showed the discipline to cruelly expose those weaknesses.
England had started the day with high expectations of victory. Seeking the final four wickets with only one recognised batsman still at the crease – albeit a dangerous one – and a new ball to be taken immediately, they couldn’t really have had more in their favour.
And those expectations seemed well founded in the first half hour. Rishabh Pant, such a striker of a cricket ball that he had the potential to take the game away from England in the blink of an eye, went early, perhaps confused as to whether to go for it or shepherd the tail. Ollie Robinson got him with a beauty that seamed up the hill to find his outside edge and four overs later, bundled the dogged Ishant Sharma back to the pavilion with a well-disguised, slower knuckle ball.
But having got the two wickets, and with the lead just 182 and more than 80 overs left in the day, England began to view the game as if through steamed-up specs. The attempt to bounce out the tail, frightening them into submission, became all-consuming as they forgot the basics of bowling at the stumps and making the batsmen really work for their runs.
There was also the sense that with Shami and Bumrah hopping about as Mark Wood, sore shoulder problems resolved, roared in, this was payback for the punishment meted out to Jimmy Anderson by Bumrah on the third evening. Indeed, there were harsh words between the teams again, as there had been on the previous two days, with Bumrah in particular being drawn into an exchange with Jos Buttler that required some calming words from the two umpires.
If that was actually the case, it backfired spectacularly on England as the Indian pair, at first swishing with abandon in the knowledge that their days were numbered, were permitted to find their feet; the hopeful scythes, chops and smears – in one or two instances even the shut-eyed carve to the cover boundary – gradually gave way to well-taken singles and twos as England’s fielders scattered to the far pavilions, convinced that a skier would soon enough land in grateful0 hands.
But that skier did not come and the batting grew more orthodox: Bumrah twice struck so straight that he was only denied boundaries by the stumps at the other end.
With the juice sucked out of the ball as it grew older and took some coruscating hits, Shami in particular took to the off spin of Moeen Ali and in the overs before lunch launched him straight for a one-bounce four and then wide of long-on for a six.
The fifty partnership came up in 72 balls and Shami went to a second Test half-century – his previous one on the same desperate bowlers’ graveyard at Trent Bridge on which even Anderson scored 81 in 2014 – and by lunch the pair had added 77.
Clearly, India had enough not to lose the game by then – the lead was 259 – and England looked shellshocked enough but Kohli, a man who knows how to put his foot on the neck and keep pressing, made them come out for nine balls before he declared.
More swishes took both batsmen to career-best scores – in Bumrah’s case the second time in this series that he has done this. Strange to think he averaged just over 2.5 from his first 30 Test innings.
With 65 overs to survive – the 272 target was never seriously considered – England made the worst start possible, Rory Burns, softened up by a first delivery from Bumrah that leapt on him, then finding himself turned round by the fourth, his leading edge popping up to extra cover.
It was his fifth duck in 12 Test innings this year and when Sibley feathered Shami behind in the next over, Root found himself back out in the middle battling desperately to save a match that little more than two hours earlier he had held realistic hopes of winning.
Root, who to this point had been on the field either as captain and fielder or batsman for all but 14.2 overs of the match, will probably feel that the position of inaugural president of the S.P.O.O.C – the Society for the Protection of Overworked Captains – should be a shoe-in.
Nonetheless, he got off the mark with one of those ethereal cover drives that makes one think of picnics, river banks and the shade formed by an overhanging tree branch on a beautiful summer’s afternoon. But the conditions, in truth, were far from idyllic – the cloud cover had closed in and any shadows cast were from the looming floodlights – and Haseeb Hameed, one of two players in the England side on a king pair, almost added to the gloom but was luckily reprieved by Rohit Sharma at second slip from a Shami delivery.
Not that Hameed was able to make much use of the let-off. He had advanced to nine and the team to 43, when Ishant Sharma, who destroyed an equally hapless England here on the final afternoon in 2014, revisited those memories, producing a superb inswinger to have him lbw.
It was fair to say that, apart from Rohit’s drop, Hameed had looked comfortable enough to provide hope that with a bit more experience from his Second Coming he will become the No 3 England crave if Root is going to continue to insist on batting at No 4.
The same could not be said of Jonny Bairstow, who reverted to type under the pressure. Ishant was the man to benefit again as minimal movement of the Yorkshireman’s front foot enabled the bowler to beat his forward prod with a straight ball that really didn’t seem to do anything untoward.
It was a significant blow the last ball before tea, and England were toitering on 67 for four. If the Indian fans in the ground – some reports put their support at 60% of those who had taken advantage of reduced £20 tickets – were buoyed by that, it was as nothing compared with the one their team struck right after it.
Three balls in, Bumrah surely ended England’s resistance as he went wider on the crease and angled in to Root. The England captain, perhaps worn down by the stamina, concentration and sheer bloody-mindedness he’d been forced to display over five days, was powerless to avoid playing at it as it held its line, and the firm edge was gleefully gathered by his opposite number in the slips. A symbolic moment.
Their mainstay banished, it seemed impossible that those left could eke out a draw with more than 40 overs still to be negotiated.
And indeed, Jos Buttler should have been gone within four overs as he prodded inexplicably at a wide Bumrah delivery but escaped, dropped at first slip by the India captain, who seemed so eager to celebrate that he forgot to catch the ball first.
Buttler, unable to play his natural game, slunk around like a wild animal at a zoo that longs for the open spaces of the savannah, but somehow he and Moeen Ali endured until the score had reached 88.
By then, the estimable Mohammed Siraj was into his stride from the Pavilion End and he teased the Worcestershire left-hander with a fourth stump line that constantly made him play. Something had to give, and it was the batsman, who edged to Kohli, his 13 having occupied 42 balls.
Sam Curran came out, the second batsman on a king pair, and duly departed the owner of the first one recorded in a Test at Lord’s, feathering behind an equally testing delivery from the livewire quick.
At 90 for seven, again it seemed all over, but Buttler and Ollie Robinson resisted for another 12 overs, adding 30, until Bumrah put the silver lining on his day, with a stunning move and finish that would have impressed Lionel Messi.
Switching to round the wicket, he bowled two bouncers at the tall England batsman that sailed way over his head. Even though Robinson must have known the full one was coming, when it did he was totally foxed, Bumrah reaching into his box of tricks for a slower ball, running his hand across the top of it to impart off-cut and disorientating Robinson enough for it to find its way through to his back leg. Genius.
The inevitable was moments away. Siraj, switched to the Nursery End, induced another prod from Buttler, this one terminal, ending his 96-ball resistance on 25.
With Anderson now required to last 8.4 overs with Mark Wood, the bowler claimed his eighth wicket of the match by going round the wicket to the left-handed No 11 and clipping the top of his off stump.
If it wasn’t enough to get him on the treasured Lord’s honours board, it delivered the final blow to the former colonial power only hours after Indian had celebrated Independence Day.