Player of the Match
Player of the Match

Jos Buttler glosses over England's top-order chaos to build imposing lead

Compton: It's been the summer of Buttler and Curran (1:00)

Nick Compton full of praise for the way Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Sam Curran have batted through the series (1:00)

England 246 and 260 for 8 (Buttler 69, Curran 36*) lead India 273 by 233 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Nothing about England's Test-match batting makes any sense any more. This is a team which possesses a pair of openers without a single half-century in four Tests; a captain at No. 3 who seems to have palmed his duties off to a man more used to batting at No.8; a sulking ex-wicketkeeper whose egregious dismissal to the first ball after lunch was the sort of dirty protest that my cat likes to leave in my wife's favourite handbags, and a formerly swashbuckling allrounder who is now officially one of the slowest Test run-scorers of 2018.

And yet, by the end of a pulsating third day at the Ageas Bowl, England had done just enough to be considered slender favourites to clinch the fourth Test against India, and with it the series, thanks once again to a lower middle-order that seems to relish the lack of expectation that comes in the wake of their team-mates' persistent failings.

Jos Buttler produced his fourth half-century of the summer, and his second in consecutive second innings against India, before Sam Curran, at the age of 20, passed that very figure for the sixth time in six innings to drag England - almost against their will - from 122 for 5, a lead of 95, to a close-of-play advantage of 233 with two wickets standing, on a surface that is drying out by the minute and will surely offer something to England's twin spinners, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid in the final innings.

Rashid himself fell to the final ball of the day, another snorter from Mohammed Shami, India's undoubted star of the day, who found some spiteful lift with the second new ball to thump the glove through to Rishabh Pant. Shami's three wickets had included two in two balls either side of lunch, including Keaton Jennings for a painstaking 36, before he emulated Andrew Flintoff's final fling at The Oval in 2009 with a pick-up-and-shy from mid-on to run out Root for a ballsy but once-again underwhelming 48.

Root's innings had been a microcosm of his recent struggles to assert himself - and at least the timing of today's dismissal allowed him to sidestep that thorny issue of his 50-to-100 conversion rate. He had arrived at the crease at No.4 with questions abounding as to his motives, and that of the team at large (not least from Virat Kohli), after Moeen had been sent out at first-drop to replace the flatlining Alastair Cook.

Cook's latest failure - caught at slip off Jasprit Bumrah for 12 - means that his Test average has now slipped below 45 for the first time since his coming-of-age Test at Brisbane in 2010-11. And though Moeen scored a double-century at 3 for Worcestershire last month, his only previous appearance in that position for England had come at Mohali in 2016. He certainly didn't appear ready for Bumrah's challenge with the new ball and, having been bamboozled by each of his first three deliveries, it was Ishant Sharma who did for him at the other end, snaffled low at slip by KL Rahul, whose 11th take of the series was, at that stage, as many as all the rest of India's out-fielders combined.

To Root's credit, the carping from India's close fielders appeared to galvanise his innings as he wore the jibes with a determined grin and set himself to steady England's position. With Jennings also meeting the needs of England's hour, putting aside the doubts about his future and concentrating on negotiating that channel outside off, England's third-wicket pair added a misleadingly serene 59 in 16 overs - a stand that was doubtless aided by the early withdrawal of Ishant, after he was very harshly handed a second official warning for following through on the danger area from round the wicket.

But it was that round-the-wicket line that ultimately ruined England's lunch. In reaching 36 from 87 balls, Jennings had set himself up outside the crease in a bid to negate the threat of lbw, but he still neglected to move his feet from that position as Shami curled a full-length ball into his shin. Up went the finger, and off sprinted Kohli to a gleeful lunch - with England wobbling once more on 92 for 3.

Forty minutes later, and Shami was on a hat-trick, as Bairstow produced a shocker of a drive to the gently shaping Dukes ball. With his leg-stump guard exposing his timbers to free up the off side, Bairstow succumbed to his second first-ball duck in as many matches, and his eighth bowled dismissal in his last 18 innings. It was reminiscent of Mark Ramprakash's snow-blind waft at Allan Donald at Johannesburg in 1995-96, but there seemed to be no mitigating torment clouding Bairstow's judgment, just a lack of responsibility from a player who has spoken frequently of how much he values having the dual role of wicketkeeper - perhaps because it mitigates against such catastrophic errors of judgment.

Talking of responsibility, that is something that Stokes has taken fully to heart in his recent visits to the crease. Three of his four slowest Test innings have come in 2018 already, and today's innings of 30 from 110 was not dissimilar to Flintoff's acts of self-denial as captain on the 2005-06 tour of India.

With his compact technique well-versed to negating seam and spin alike, especially with R Ashwin struggling to assert himself as India's lone spinner, Stokes was putting in the hard yards alongside his skipper until an untimely act of regicide gifted India another crucial opening. Root might have done more to make his ground after responding late to Stokes' call for a quick single, but Shami's aim was deadly and England, at 122 for 5, were right back in the soup.

Enter Buttler with another vital counterpunching knock - and with the gloves actually in his possession this time, the comparisons with Gilchrist were more pertinent than usual, even if his strike-rate was not. He did not rush through his shots by any stretch of the imagination - his fifty came up from a sedate 96 balls - although he flirted with danger in the corridor at times, particularly against India's reverse swing. But he produced the right weight of stroke at the right moments to make his frequent connections count, and when Stokes was finally done in by Ashwin's extra flight to be caught at slip by Ajinkya Rahane, he carried on trusting his game to muscle England into a vital 200-plus lead.

The second new ball finally did for Buttler, as Ishant jagged one off the seam to rap his front pad for 69, but Curran's precocious ball-striking could not be cowed by any circumstance. Twice in two balls, he drove swinging deliveries from Bumrah clean through the covers, and though his feet were still planted outside leg stump, his supremely keen eye allied to a plumb-vertical bat was more than a match for India's bowler of the match. It's been that sort of a game. India have produced the stellar moments with bat and ball, but England's mix of scrappy and scrapper has just about given them the edge.

India 4th innings Partnerships

1st4S DhawanKL Rahul
2nd13S DhawanCA Pujara
3rd5S DhawanV Kohli
4th101V KohliAM Rahane
5th4AM RahaneHH Pandya
6th23AM RahaneRR Pant
7th3R AshwinAM Rahane
8th1R AshwinI Sharma
9th9R AshwinMohammed Shami
10th21R AshwinJJ Bumrah