Weary India facing familiar test
A five-Test series was always going to be a challenge for India. In the second half of the first back-to-back Tests, at Lord's, they gave it their all: batsmen showed discipline for long hours, bowlers bowled long testing spells, MS Dhoni went against the grain and showed rare aggression and tactical nous as captain. But the question always was, how much did it take out of India?
In Southampton, Ishant Sharma was ruled out with an injury broadly described by India as a "sore leg", Bhuvneshwar Kumar was down on intensity, with the ball not seaming as much as it did at Lord's, and Mohammed Shami's lack of discipline became exposed when others around him didn't bowl that well. Now it's down to the batsmen once again to make sure India do not fall back to the bad old days.
It didn't help India that their slips give no confidence to the bowlers - another catch went down, another catch that the wicketkeeper should have gone for - but the bigger concern would be that they decided too early that the pitch was too flat and that they couldn't win the match. As early as the middle session of the second day, India went to Ravindra Jadeja as their main bowler, who darted balls into the pads with a six-three leg-side field.
The pursuit, like it was in Durban when they didn't take the second new ball until they were forced to after 146 overs, seemed to just contain and delay England's declaration. It is up for debate if thinking of a draw when your enforcing bowler is injured, you have a long series to go through, and you have the series lead, is such a bad thing, but that attitude can lead to dropping of intensity. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who bowled tirelessly at Lord's for six wickets in the first innings, echoed what was happening out there.
"Wicket is flat, easy for batsman," Bhuvneshwar said. "We tried our best as a bowling unit but we have had two long days."
The two long days led to extreme steps by Dhoni. In the middle session of day two, he had his bowlers bowling one-over spells for a long period. The 16th over after lunch was the first time a bowler had bowled two continuous overs from the same end. When Bhuvneshwar created an opportunity in the second half of the session, he was rewarded with another over. He was testing still, but that's all he got. Debutant Pankaj Singh was brought on for the next over, and the first ball he bowled was a leg-side loosener. That can happen when you don't let the bowlers get into any rhythm.
Bhuvneshwar, though, said the number of overs they have bowled justified that extreme rotation of bowlers. "I found that really easy, being in the field for one-and-a-half days we were really tired," Bhuvneshwar said. "Skipper wanted us to bowl one-over spells. By then we were in rhythm as well and we were not getting tired. Personally we found that easy."
When asked about conceding boundaries on both side of the wicket, Bhuvneshwar brought up fatigue again. "When [Gary] Ballance and [Alastair] Cook were batting, the situation demanded that we bowl on one side," Bhuvneshwar said. "Sometimes we were tired, been a long day in the field, it is natural, we are human beings. We tried our best to bowl in a particular area. We tried different strategies."
The slips' slips can't be put down to tiredness, though. Bhuvneshwar sounded forgiving, although you can't expect him or a lot of other India players to accept in a press conference that there is something wrong with them. "Being a bowler you have to know they are going to take some catches, and they are going to drop a few," Bhuvneshwar said. "Every team drops a few catches, but you have to trust the fielder. You can't ask anyone to come out of the slips. All you want is to give them confidence. It happens in cricket that catches are dropped. So far, in all three matches it has been good for us."
Tired bowlers, one injured bowler, dropped catches, dropped pace, captaincy waiting for declaration, an early wicket before stumps, it all sounds like a perfect recipe for disaster. India will dearly love to go to Old Trafford still ahead in the series but their batsmen have a long way to go to ensure that, going by how well James Anderson bowled in that seven-over burst and how the pitch has responded to his pace as opposed to India's put-it-there bowlers.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo