India in a comfortable position against England on rank turner
All of two balls, bowled in succession and in a matter of seconds, had the narrative power to sum up the entirety of the 85 overs bowled during the first day of this Chennai Test. The first of those was the fourth ball of England’s 38th over, when off-spinner Moeen Ali jogged towards the popping crease from the Anna Pavilion End of the MA Chidambaram Stadium on Saturday. Waiting for Ali to release the ball was India’s opener, Rohit Sharma.
It was flighted and full, and on pitching the ball emerged from an explosion of dust and scooted past the outside edge of Sharma’s bat. The close-in fielders sighed and even Sharma held his defensive pose a fraction longer than usual, his eyes fixed on one of the many spots of rough that had emerged during the opening few hours itself.
Ali smiled, possibly even smacking his lips in anticipation of the next ball. This is how he had earlier dismissed Virat Kohli for a rare duck at home and this is how he was later going to dismiss Ajinkya Rahane when he was primed for a hundred—by giving the ball plenty of air around off-stump and allowing the pitch to do the rest.
The next ball to Sharma was tossed up too, and was fast narrowing into the minefield when Sharma stepped out of the crease and crunched the half-volley over the bowler’s head. The shot swerved violently right in the Chennai air and ended up clattering against the concrete steps above the Madras Cricket Club. Had a spectator (allowed into an Indian ground for the first time since March, 2020) watched only those two deliveries and nothing else, he would still have a complete picture of this fire-and-brimstone sort of day; a day when England’s spinners tag-teamed with the pitch and yet Sharma retaliated with 161 runs. That’s more than half of India’s total at stumps of 300/5, a great team score considering what it could have been without Sharma’s runs.
“See, on a pitch like this, you have got to be proactive before it is too late,” Sharma would explain his mindset at the press conference. “You cannot be tentative or have two thoughts. If you want to sweep, you sweep. If you want to use your feet, then you do that and play with the turn.” For the five-and-a-half hours that Sharma’s innings lasted, he did just that – predominantly sweeping Ali and using his feet to Jack Leach, and occasionally the other way around. His runs alone are proof that the strategy worked.
It is rather incredible that before this series, then 34-Test-old Sharma had played just one long-form match against England, and even that came way back in 2014—near the beginning of his stop-start Test career. In that Test in Southampton, he scored 28 in the first innings as a middle-order bat, which wasn’t bettered in the two innings (6 and 12) in his new-ish avatar of an opener in the first Chennai Test.
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He got past that barrier with gusto on Saturday, welcoming Ben Stokes to the bowling crease with a first-ball boundary through cover. It took him to 29, from as many balls. It is easy to say he was looking ominous with the help of hindsight, but the innings until then (or even later) was far from chanceless. There were inside-edges that narrowly missed the stumps and paddle sweeps that squirted uppishly and landed between fielders. But on a wicket as nasty, Sharma would have expected nothing less.
Immediately after Sharma spanked a four and a six off successive Stokes deliveries—both pulls, one high and the other low—England captain Joe Root brought Leach into the attack. And he nearly struck. Sharma poked from the back of the crease and the edge fell just short of first slip. He was on 42 then.
To Sharma’s credit, his course-correction was almost as instant. Next ball, he lunged forward to take the ball on the full and swept Leach hard towards the boundary to get to 46. Two balls later, he let the ball bounce and swept against the spin. The result was the same, and as a bonus, he had brought up his fifty.
“The sweep is something that can frustrate a bowler. There is not much a bowler or the pitch can do if you are playing that shot well,” Sharma said. “It is also the safer option, because both fielders were on boundary. And so my top edges also fell in safe places. And with Moeen Ali bowling outside the off-stump, LBW also doesn’t come into play.”
In the space of just one Sharma run at the end of the first session (from 63 to 64), he lost two partners, Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli. When the teams took lunch, Sharma had scored 80 out of 106 runs. But in the afternoon session, his Mumbai mate Ajinkya Rahane would help share his thus-far lone burden. “We really understand each other but the main thing was that we were constantly chatting. I think that’s why we had a good partnership,” said Sharma, before revealing one of the things they chatted about. “I was telling him to sweep.”
Although he was scoring in a hurry before lunch and was just 20 short of his first hundred against England at the break, Sharma bid his time in the afternoon. Until he got into the nineties, that is. On 91, Ali bowled those two balls that encapsulated the day’s play—a dangerous dot followed by a six to take him to 97. But the nerves didn’t end there.
On 98, he tried to lap sweep his way to century off Ali, only for the ball to clip the toe end of his bat and fly over short midwicket. But on Saturday, it was a case of try-till-you-get-it-right with Sharma. Three jittery overs later, he lap swept Ali towards fine leg and trotted two runs—the second of those with his bat in the air.