Dhoni fights but India's top order folds again
England 62 for 0 (Robson 33*, Cook 24*) trail India 148 (Dhoni 82, Jordan 3-32, Woakes 3-30) by 86 runs
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Without MS Dhoni, India would have been entirely bereft. Even with his redoubtable effort, consolation was only skin deep as India succumbed tamely in exacting conditions on the opening day of the fifth Investec Test. If the appearance in a Test match of an old-fashioned England green seamer was cause for debate, the appearance of an old-style green Indian batting performance was wearyingly predictable.
Desperate to summon some resolve after an ignominious three-day defeat at Old Trafford, instead India were routed by the sixth over after tea, entirely unable to combat the moving ball. A young batting line-up, with scant experience in England conditions, looked devoid of confidence. England then emphasised their advantage by easing to 62 without loss in 19 overs by the close with Sam Robson earnestly seeking a more positive approach and India's bowlers hampered by the footholds.
Once again Dhoni stood firm for India while others foundered, last man out for 82, depositing Stuart Broad into the hands of long leg. "Well played mate," was Broad's send-off. Suddenly these teams are being nice to each other again. It was a strangely relaxed innings, failing to bring him a first Test hundred outside Asia, although that must have been far from his thoughts when the last man, Ishant Sharma, walked out with him on 32.
His appetite for Test captaincy has been questioned as the series has progressed, but he struck his fourth half-century of the series, a series of uninhibited blows bringing him 15 of India's 19 boundaries, the sheer parlousness of India's position ultimately allowing him to play much as he pleased. He hit 58% of India's runs off the bat: well played mate, indeed.
An unbroken last-wicket stand with Sharma, a stonewalling No. 11, brought India 58 in 17 overs and, if 148 remained a long way from respectability, they would have been dismissed for 90 had England appealed for a catch at the wicket off Chris Jordan when Dhoni was 32, and again for 96 had Ian Bell not dropped Ishant, on 1, at second slip, a rare blemish from a rejuvenated England slip cordon. This Test series has now produced more runs for the last wicket than any in history.
But even Dhoni, India's one figure of defiance, was fortunate not to become India's third duck of the morning. He got off the mark in streaky fashion as an outside edge against Chris Woakes escaped to third man. Nobody would present his technique as a model for English conditions, but once again he resisted vigorously.
As for Dhoni's team-mates, one particularly persistent pigeon spent more time on the pitch than many of them. Considering that Dhoni had skipped practice two days before the Test to go shooting, it was fortunate to escape with its life, even allowing for the fact that pigeon saag is not yet a Jharkhand culinary speciality.
For once, it was England's support bowlers who took most of the spoils. Woakes, who had bowled without much luck in the series, and Jordan both took three wickets, although Jordan's rewards came as bounty from heaven as his inconsistencies went unpunished. England's retention of the XI that trounced India at Old Trafford paid off handsomely.
Is it purely coincidence that since Dhoni pressed his campaign against James Anderson this series has turned so markedly in England's favour or was it the catalyst for England to cast aside their Ashes hangover?
Anderson is bowling with a conjurer's sleight of hand, his sledging less apparent these days, and groundsmen have loyally produced pitches to maximise India's discomfort, most obviously here at The Oval, once the home of dry, quick surfaces replete with runs. Thundery rain has fallen in London all week and enough grass remained on the pitch to expose India's naivety.
There are only three more successful new-ball pairings than England's new-ball pair, Anderson and Broad. They reached 350 Test wickets when opening the bowling together, a wicket apiece as Gautam Gambhir and Cheteshwar Pujara perished within six overs. India, remarkably, have not assembled a half-century opening stand for 17 Test innings.
Heavy rain on Thursday delayed the start for half an hour, but England only had to wait four balls for success once the Test got underway. Gambhir fell for nought, his first ball - from Anderson - leaving him transfixed as he attempted a half-hearted leave and only succeeded in guiding the ball to the wicketkeeper, Jos Buttler, off the full face of the bat. Pujara, late on the shot again, was beaten on the inside edge by Broad as he nipped one back to clip his top arm and hit the top of middle.
Broad, after talk of face masks and experiments in the nets with nose splints, opted not to wear protection on a broken nose that he described as "still a bit wobbly", if not quite as wobbly as a Dukes ball in the hands of his partner in crime, Anderson. Two black eyes made him look like a Goth with badly smudged eyeliner after a heavy night.
India managed only two boundaries by lunch, five wickets lost within 25 overs. Virat Kohli's sumptuous off drive when met by a rare overpitched delivery from Anderson might have belonged to another match; another summer. It was the sole reminder of the style that he had been expected to exhibit all summer. He was dismissed in the following over.
Kohli's run without a half-century in this series now stretches to nine innings, his average of 12.70 among the lowest ever recorded by an India batsman in a five-Test series. His leave alone in Jordan's first over looked reasonable enough, but when your luck is out the marginal decisions tend to go against you: umpire Kumar Dharmasena adjudged him lbw with replays suggesting the ball would have clipped off stump.
India keep repeating their mistakes. Ajinkya Rahane, who began the series so impressively, was out without scoring as a furtive push at Jordan meant that he fell to a return catch for the third time in the series, so continuing a mode of dismissal for him also seen at Lord's and Old Trafford. Jordan, struggling for consistency at the start of his Test career, had barely broken sweat and found himself with two wickets in his first two overs without conceding a run.
M Vijay has been India's staunchest batsman this summer, rarely exciting but certainly the hardest to dislodge. He laboured 64 balls for 18 before he became the fifth batsman to fall, angling Woakes to Joe Root at gully. Stuart Binny, preferred to Ravindra Jadeja, found himself batting by lunch.
Nothing changed after the interval, any hopes that conditions might ease proving erroneous. Anderson toyed with Binny, giving the impression that if he wished he could have turned him in so many directions that he could have tied him around the stumps in any knot you cared to mention: an outswinger, edged to Cook at first slip, extended England's most successful outfielder-bowler combination to 25 catches.
The rest fell to the change bowlers. Woakes removed R Ashwin courtesy of an excellent low catch by Root, Bhuvneshwar flung his bat at a short, wide outswinger, and a short ball into the body of Varun Aaron brought a hapless response and a return catch. That Dhoni dragged the innings out for so long after that was a tribute to his competitive zeal. Others would do well to learn from it.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo