Spinners keep England searching for substance
In the dazzle of Ahmedabad’s afternoon heat, the light reflecting off the orange seats of the new stadium, Dan Lawrence got into his stance by lifting his bat high against his back and then squinted at Axar Patel at the top of his bowling mark. Sunglasses cooling his eyes, Patel jogged in to commence the 69th over of England’s innings and dropped the first ball a tad short, which the well-set Lawrence swivelled into and handsomely pulled it for a boundary through the empty swathe behind square leg.
Even as the crack of the bat echoed against the mostly vacant stands, English cricket ticked off two sizeable achievements, at least as far as their batting in this series is concerned. The first was that young Lawrence—earmarked for his ability to play spin—had reached a score of 40 for the first time since his Test debut in Galle nearly two months ago, where he had scored 73. Between then and now, there was a string of enough single-digit scores to get him dropped from the previous Test in Ahmedabad.
The more significant milestone that occurred with Lawrence’s lofted hit off Patel had to do with his team’s score. As it moved from 178/7 to 182/7, it gave Joe Root’s side their highest innings score in this four-match series since the first innings of the first Test in Chennai. Such has been the incredible control India’s spinners have exerted over the visitors’ bats and minds that England’s eventual total of 205 (after they chose to bat, no less) felt like a bit of a resistance.
That barrier fell soon enough when an overconfident Lawrence danced down the wicket to Patel and was stumped on 46. This resulted in England barely stumbling over 200, and not touching a 250-plus score that they long threatened. Still, that middling total—thanks to Lawrence, the top-scoring Ben Stokes’s watchful 55 and to some extent Ollie Pope’s laborious 29—should’ve eased some of the fears in the England camp, especially after the horrific collapses witnessed within these very walls in the third Test.
“I’m only disappointed that we’re not still batting,” Stokes would say at stumps, which were drawn after a cautious Rohit Sharma ensured opener Shubman Gill was India’s only casualty on Day One (India are 24/1). Stokes added: “We looked more than capable of scoring over 300 runs. In the morning and through the afternoon, it was the bounce and not the spin that was the issue. So it’s frustrating because I got in and got comfortable and for two-and-a-half hours I was trying to not get out to the ball that skids on and that’s exactly what got me out.”
Off the 121st ball he faced on Thursday—Stokes’s longest stay at the crease in terms of balls and time on this tour—Washington Sundar, who had got several balls to spin away from the left-hander in the lead-up to the wicket, trapped him leg-before with a straighter one. Deep into the crease he was when Stokes turned around to check if the ball would’ve knocked over the stumps, then simply shook his head and walked away. But while he was around, as it often is the case, England seemed capable of miracles.
The first wave of his wand stemmed his team’s top-order rot. When he walked in to bat at the fall of his captain’s wicket—falling to Mohammed Siraj off the first ball after drinks in the morning—England were 30/3 in the 13th over and on the verge of yet another disaster. Siraj was angry with ball and mouth as Stokes pulled a short one into the midwicket fence and the batsman twice smiled after nicking the pacer through the cordon for boundaries. All that in the same over—15th of the day.
Stokes was middling it soon enough, even against his nemesis in R Ashwin. The off-spinner had dismissed the all-rounder on four occasions in this series alone. But in Ashwin’s first over of the day—the 20th, a later than usual introduction—
Stokes ran down the wicket and blasted the ball over long off for his first six.
While Jonny Bairstow, his partner, chose to trust the bounce with a flurry of cuts to the boundary, Stokes was keen on nullifying it completely by using his feet. Like when he skipped out to Ashwin in the 32nd over and flicked the ball against the turn for a carpet-hugging boundary. But within a few overs Sundar was brought into the attack and with his very first ball he beat Stokes’s blade.
“I’ve played some 70 Tests and I’ve played all over the world. I still think these are some of the hardest conditions I’ve ever played in,” Stokes said later. The introduction of Sundar was making it even harder for Stokes, who awkwardly tried to swipe for a six and missed in the 41st over before getting it right on his second attempt two balls later. An ungainly reverse sweep off Patel brought up his fifty in the 44th over, and he would’ve taken all the ugly runs on offer over getting out, which he did two overs later.
As Stokes exited the scene, in came Lawrence—out of form and out of batting position as well—at No.7. Stokes would later reveal that Lawrence agreed to play in any role to return to the team. He said: “To have that trait at such a young age is certainly very impressive.” Very impressive was also Lawrence’s intent against Sundar. With his score on just 1, Lawrence relentlessly attacked Sundar’s bowling in the 50th over. The second ball was walloped over mid-on for four. For the following four from the very next ball, he took a long stride and pierced the two cover fielders to perfection.
Those were all uplifting hits, but Lawrence’s shot of the day came off the last ball before tea, when he delicately stroked the ball back past Ishant Sharma to the ropes, giving the England dressing room great reason to believe during the final break. Some of that hope did come good post tea, like when he punched Ashwin off the backfoot or when he drove Siraj on the rise—both to the electronic hoardings. But soon his defiance, and as a result England’s, was snuffed out.