India vs England, 3rd Test: Root cause of India's troubles
- England skipper hits his third successive century of the series a day after India batters failed to find their feet
Stranger events have unfolded in cricket but even the biggest optimist wouldn’t hesitate to admit India losing the third Test is almost inevitable now. Unless rain intervenes---and there is very little chance of that---England are expected to exact a series-equalling win very soon. It’s a possibility that should not confound India. Not every day can bowlers multitask and bail out the team. Heads could---and should---roll, possibly from that middle-order that has long been protected and hyped despite an extraordinarily pedestrian run for almost two years now. But was this India’s best bowling attack for the day?
We know how Virat Kohli swears by the ‘template’ of having five specialist bowlers in the team. It however reduces to be a farce when the world’s best finger spinner is constantly cast aside in favour of a spinner who is more valued because of his batting or fielding. It’s only because of the fast bowlers that this obvious flaw wasn’t bared and exploited in the first two Tests. But on a day when India’s pace attack had no place to hide in the face of an imperious batting performance from England captain Joe Root, the real value of Ravichandran Ashwin may have been finally realised. There won’t be any official admission to that effect because it’s so unseemly. And clichés like “not breaking the winning combination”, “a left-arm spinner can take the ball away from the right hander” or “left-handed batsmen lends more variety to a predominantly right-handed batting side” always come in handy in such situations.
Deep down inside though, India know they have led England on. If an economy of four is an indication of Ishant Sharma’s dwindling penetrability, four no-balls were a sure giveaway of a genuine struggle with his run-up. But what was more incomprehensible was Virat Kohli persisting with him despite meager returns. Barring Bumrah, every bowler leaked runs around the park. Mohammad Shami and Mohammed Siraj often sprayed the ball around trying to try new things. But what hurt India most were the boundary balls they conceded almost every over. Unlike in the first innings, there was no swing available but that is when discipline plays a big role in plugging the runs. India were found wanting on that front as well. Lengths were compromised and too many balls were bowled on the pads.
The two wickets England lost in the morning session---Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed ---were almost self-inflicted after England got off to an understandably slow start that added only 62 runs in the first session. Things came to a head though when Malan and Root came together. Back in the Test team after 2018, Malan may have missed out on a deserving century but his 139-run partnership with Root did its part in thwarting any hopes of an Indian revival. And he had his moments too. Malan driving through the line and sending the ball darting through square and across the practice pitches will not make this Test a happy memory for any of India’s four pace bowlers.
It was Root though who made India pay through the nose, cashing in on every loose delivery to propel England to an enviable position. Personally, Root has been experiencing one of the best summers of his life. He has passed 50 seven times this year. Six of those knocks have now been converted into hundreds. When he was dismissed, Root had scored 30.9% of England’s Test match runs off the bat in 2021. He looked unstoppable, playing late and with soft hands, often running the ball down through the slip as has been his style over the years. Jadeja was tonked through covers and swept from outside off-stump for a boundary through mid-on. Could Ashwin have made a difference? Possibly. At home or away, Root is often the difference that keeps England afloat. And the home series against England earlier this year was a good reminder of his vulnerability against spin when the ball is pitched in the right areas. Perhaps no one does it better than Ashwin.
An orthodox version of him makes the ball come in fairly regularly. But Ashwin is more than just a finger spinner. The variations, both in terms of flight as well as degree of spin (in or away from the batsman) that he has developed over the years make him a fiercely difficult bowler. To not play him for three Tests in a row is a gamble, especially when you recall what he has achieved away from home in recent months. It was Ashwin who had first got Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne with that leg-trap in Australia before grinding out a draw with Hanuma Vihari at Sydney. His batting away from home is often not accounted for but that dogged innings should have earned him some points even in England if it really came down to who among the two spinners was a better bat. It did not. Not even a good show against New Zealand in an overwhelmingly swing-friendly Southampton during the World Test Championship final helped his cause.
It’s a chance missed when you see the ease with which England pulled ahead of India on Thursday. They added 303 runs in 87 overs and still have two wickets left. No team has ever won with a deficit this large. And India frankly don’t have the confidence to bat themselves out of danger this time. Ashwin could have lessened the burden, if given the chance. But India have chosen to stick to their template.