India vs England, 3rd Test, Day 1: Axar sizzles with six on home turf as India take early command
In the middle of a bright orange-and-yellow dash provided by the seats at what now is the Narendra Modi Stadium, the pink ball looked like an enticing cherry from afar, yet dangerous for those who faced it. Complementing the palette was the brown puffs of dust the spikes threw up every time the batsman moved his feet, from the first session.
Yet, in the midst of the splash of colour in the day-night Test on Wednesday, it was England’s drab batting that stuck out. Felled by the demons their minds created on a dry pitch, they were trapped in the web spun by left-arm spinner Axar Patel—he took a career-best 6/38 after a fifer on debut in Chennai—and Ravichandran Ashwin (3/26).
The visitors’ fight was over even before the tricky twilight phase for batsmen set in properly, the innings collapsing from 74/2 to 112 all out in the first innings after England skipper Joe Root had elected to bat in the third Test.
By the end of the day, the figures had justified India’s decision to play three spinners though the third, Washington Sundar, picked in place of Kuldeep Yadav, did not get an over. Such was the impact of Patel and Ashwin, who kept it tight in tandem, England batsmen had no escape route.
Contrary to the norm in day-night Tests, the green tinge on the pitch was deceiving. The hot Ahmedabad weather ensured the popping crease on either end gave the impression of a dust bowl. There was the odd bounce too, which sometimes allowed great carry while on other occasions the ball dipped in front of the keeper. There was turn as well as movement. But it was nothing close to a devilish strip that England’s score might suggest. They got done in by straight deliveries, each time beaten playing for the turn.
To Patel and Ashwin’s credit, they extracted spin, forcing the opposition to stay put in the crease and add pressure on themselves. The proceedings of the second Test in Chennai would have been fresh on their mind when the spin duo had called the shots on a turner.
Axar Patel was pleased his arm ball had great effect. "I learned it on my own. Also, my time with V Venkataram sir at the NCA (National Cricket Academy) helped me hone it. I started as a fast bowler but then shifted to spin due to problem in my knee. That's why speed is more, which helped me today. The ball was skidding too, which helped me."
Barring opener Zak Crawley, whose drives raised the heat in daylight, no other England batsmen looked like taking the attack to the opposition. They neither stepped out to hit the ball nor used the sweep shot. With each falling wicket, England batsmen went further into a cocoon, and suffered.
Local boy Patel, and Ashwin, who is three short of becoming the fourth Indian bowler to reach 400 Test wickets, set up the batsmen over after over with turn and variations. Changing the pace and angles, they lured the England batsmen into believing the next delivery would be vicious. And just when England batsmen got too cautious against the turn, the spin duo snuck in a straight one, every time with success.
The procession started with Patel’s first ball of the day, after Ishant had sent back opener Dom Sibley with a delivery that held the line and kissed the edge of the bat, Rohit Sharma taking a sharp catch at slips.
The left-arm spinner whizzed one towards the middle stump that drew Jonny Bairstow forward. He wanted to negate the turn that was not there. The ball stayed straight and struck the pad. May be the speed of the delivery beat him, but Patel was on course for his second fifer in three innings. The England batsman reviewed the decision and lost.
Root and Crawley struck the only meaningful partnership (47 off 94 balls) before Ashwin joined the party with one that sprung up and cramped the England captain, consistently playing on the backfoot, for space. He was trapped leg before playing down the wrong line. Another review was taken and lost.
Before the first session ended, Patel would remove the increasingly dangerous Crawley, who had completed his half-century riding on some fluent hitting, with one that skidded as the England No. 3 came forward and struck the pads. It was the first-time in the five-year history of day-night Tests that spinners had accounted for three wickets in the first session.
A new-look England eleven that had as many as four changes from the team in the second Test was crumbling. Several more England batsmen would fall for the drift and dip that India’s spinners imparted, leaving the visitors confused.
Until Jofra Archer hit a couple of boundaries, it looked like England would not even touch triple figures. He too fell to a straight one that sneaked past the inside edge to rattle the stumps.
As India batted, the visitors playing just one spinner, Jack Leach, would have looked at sea but for Stuart Broad and James Anderson.
With a collective haul of over 1000 wickets, they know a thing or two about leaving the batsmen puzzled. They brought in all their experience. They moved the ball, and extracted bounce under the lights as Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill hopped, skipped and jumped.
But unlike their English counterparts, Gill and Sharma dug in. Even a couple of decisions went their way. Once Ben Stokes looked like snapping up one from Gill at slips off Broad with umpire Anil Chaudhary’s soft-signal indicating out. Replays though showed the England all-rounder had grassed it.
On another occasion, Broad trapped the opener in front of the wicket with a length ball but the umpire signalled not out. The DRS showed the ball was clipping the top of leg-stump and it was umpire’s call, which went India’s way. Adding to England’s frustration was the soil at the popping crease getting soft leading to footing issues for Broad.
But as the ball got old and scoring became easier, the Indian opener looked more assured. Ultimately, it was short delivery from Jofra Archer that Gill top-edged trying to pull from outside off-stump to be caught by Crawley. Cheteshwar Pujara fell to Leach for the third time in the series, trapped in front by a straight one.
The successive wickets gave England a glimmer of hope but Sharma, who completed his half-century in 63 balls, and Virat Kohli gave stability. Anderson almost had Kohli, but Ollie Pope at gully dropped a simple chance when he was on 24. The pair took India to 98/2 before Kohli played on against Leach.
India ended the day on 99/3, trailing by 13 runs.