England win or a classic India chase on the fifth day?
Jos Buttler had just been stumped by Rishabh Pant, beaten as he danced down the track to left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem after tea on the fourth day of the first Test at Chennai on Monday. The TV camera panned to England captain Joe Root who was outside the team dressing room. It was a routine for the next half an hour.
The visitors’ lead had swelled past 400, and anticipation was whether the visitors would declare the innings. Root though was in his training shorts, seemingly happy to wait. He or the England support staff looked absolutely in no hurry. In the end, the declaration never came.
England’s last wicket in the second innings fell at 178, and having taken a first innings lead of 241, India faced a huge fourth innings target of 420 to win the first Test, or bat out a possible 107 overs to avoid defeat.
India achieved a heroic chase of 328 in their last Test, at Brisbane Test. Having reached 39/1 at stumps, the hosts will need 381 more on a wearing pitch on Tuesday. If they pull it off, it will be the highest successful chase in Test cricket, bettering the 418 West Indies achieved against Australia in 2003.
Was it a safety first approach, did England get defensive and deny a few more valuable overs for their bowlers to try and bowl out India? Two things could have played on their minds. Washington Sundar had taken on the England bowling in the morning, hitting 12 fours and two sixes to score his second fifty in three innings, top-scoring with 85*. And Pant had counter-attacked with 92 in the first innings.
India had also famously chased down 387 to beat England at Chennai in 2008, a game that featured fast bowler James Anderson, with whom Root was in deep conversation before he went out to bat at No. 11.
The aura of India, after the comeback series win in Australia, could have been the biggest factor, even if that would require overcoming a fifth day track of variable bounce. Puffs of dust were already rising as batsmen played every ball. Root maybe wanted to first minimise the chances of an Indian win in a match the visitors have dominated till now. With India 39/1 at stumps, after Rohit Sharma was beaten by the drift and turn Jack Leach found to be bowled, Root may not be too unhappy with his decision.
Local boys rule
Before that final session took shape, two local players--Sundar and Ashwin-- stamped their class at the MA Chidambaram Stadium.
Starting the day 321 runs behind England’s first innings 578 with four wickets in hand, India needed something special. Sundar provided it with his 135-ball effort and an 80-run stand for the seventh wicket with Ashwin (31). Sundar’s left-handed batting skills make him an exciting prospect to develop into a class all-rounder. It came to the fore in the first innings at the Gabba, and again in Chennai.
It was a venue where Sundar’s only first-class century had come, as an opener for Tamil Nadu against Tripura in 2017. The way he went for his drives again pace and spin, and his compact defence, another century was in the offing.
Even when Sundar was beaten by the movement of Anderson, he responded with a straight six. Root’s off-spin was sent for perfectly-timed fours by Sundar, who also took on off-spinner Dom Bess, who picked four wickets on Day 3 but erred in length on Monday. Sundar ran out of partners when India were 337 all out.
That huge deficit meant India had to skittle out England in the second innings. Who better to deliver on a dry pitch with wear and tear than Ashwin. He struck off the first delivery of the innings, sharp turn forcing Rory Burns playing forward defensively to nick to Ajinkya Rahane at slip.
England’s intention to score quickly was evident in the second session as they scored almost four runs per over at one point. It also meant an increased risk of losing wickets. Ashwin took his second wicket with the new ball, surprising opener Dom Sibley with bounce and turn to get him to edge to Cheteshwar Pujara at leg-slip.
Root again swept strongly to push’s England lead. Ishant Sharma trapped No. 3 Dan Lawrence leg before to become India’s sixth bowler, and third pacer, to complete 300 wickets in his 98th Test.
Ashwin kept providing breakthroughs and left-arm Shahbaz Nadeem scalped Jos Buttler and Ollie Pope as reward for his toil. It slowed down England, though they were eating into the overs they would get to try and bowl India out.
Ashwin completed his 28th five-wicket haul when he bowled Jofra Archer, but Anderson too came in. He fell second ball to Ashwin, who ended with 6/61.
“It’s the first game of the series. We want a strong start. You don’t really want to give India a chance to win. They have some fine players. And you need have big runs to keep an attacking field for the spinners all day tomorrow. With that many runs on board, we are ahead in the game. We are confident we can create enough chances to win the game tomorrow,” Jon Lewis, England bowling coach, said after the day’s play.
“The pitch is good but tricky. So, acceleration against experienced Indians in India isn’t always straightforward. It’s not a pitch where one can be reckless to score runs. We were very confident about the amount of overs we wanted to bowl tonight. That gives a bit of time, if we need the second new ball tomorrow, 20 overs or so.”