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England squander golden opportunity

Statistics are, very often, misleading. Just as the average person has one breast and one testicle, so scorecards can provide an inaccurate picture of a day's play.

A glance at the scorecard from the first day of the second Investec Test might lead you to conclude that England had bowled pretty well. You might conclude that James Anderson had been tight, that Stuart Broad had been probing and that Liam Plunkett and Ben Stokes had lent disciplined support.

But the truth is England squandered a golden opportunity. They wasted the new ball, they dropped chances and they reverted to the type of tactics that made little use of the sort of pitch of which England seamers should dream. They bowled substantially worse than they had at Trent Bridge.

They had, at last, a green pitch offering carry. They had, at last, an opportunity to test an Indian batting line-up who have questions to answer against the moving ball. And they had a muggy morning on which to bowl. They could - should - have seized this series by the neck and bowled out India for under 200. As it is, India have already recorded their highest first innings total in a Test at Lord's and built a challenging platform.

England wasted their chance. With conditions at their most helpful, England's most experienced seamers bowled too short and too wide. Only one delivery in the first 10 overs would have hit the stumps and, though James Anderson's first five overs were maidens, not a single delivery in them would have bowled a batsman. The Indians were, on the whole, delighted to leave them and see the danger subside.

England's tactics were, at times, baffling. If the sight of Plunkett, on a green surface, banging in the ball with three men out for the hook was frustrating, the sight of Anderson, the man who has taken more Test wickets in England than anyone in history, the man who has the most Test wickets at Lord's, the man who had the second new ball, bowling to India's No. 10 with six - yes, six - men out on the boundary was utterly baffling.

In such helpful conditions - the conditions England have said they wanted for weeks - all the bowlers needed to do was pitch the ball up, bowl at the stumps and allow the swing and the tentative Indian batting to do the rest. But, perhaps through impatience, perhaps through a lack of confidence, perhaps unable to adapt to the conditions after a succession of slow, low surfaces, England bowled short and wide and failed to make the Indian batsmen play at enough deliveries.

There can be no excuses. England's attack leaders have more than 600 Test wickets and 150 Test caps between them. They have, in David Saker, an experienced bowling coach who must surely have suggested they target the stumps more frequently. They were brought up on pitches like this and have the experience to adapt. And, if weariness is a legitimate excuse in the final session, they might reflect that, had they bowled better in the first two hours, they might have had their feet up by tea.

The frustration was that, when they did pitch the ball up, the wickets soon followed. Virat Kohli was the victim of a fine delivery that forced a stroke but then left him to take the edge, while MS Dhoni pushed at a ball he could have left and Murali Vijay played across one. Indeed, when Stuart Binny was the unfortunate victim of an umpiring error, it reduced India to 145 for 7 and left England on the brink of a decent result despite their own modest performance.

"Evidence is mounting that Matt Prior is no longer able to do what he could before. His misses are no longer aberrations. They are occurring too often and costing England too much"

But they failed to take advantage. Plunkett was inexplicably instructed to bowl around the wicket and test the batsmen with short bowling - deliveries that were later dismissed as "a little bit easy" by Ajinkya Rahane - and Broad, despite the trouble he caused when he hit a good length, also banged in far too many deliveries. Rahane, leaving well but brutal on anything short, responded with a masterful century that may yet prove the defining contribution in this game.

"There is a bit of frustration," Stokes admitted afterwards. "The last session has turned things around a bit. We were extremely unlucky.

"We were pretty happy with our lengths, but our lines could have been better. We talked about it and corrected it. And we had them 140 for 7. So, on the positive side, we keep knocking over their top order."

If such words seem somewhat delusional, the fault was not all England's bowlers. They also suffered, once again, from poor support from their wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, who put down two chances and conceded his 50th bye of the Test summer in the evening session. Such a number includes, inevitably, some deliveries speared down the leg side which no keeper could prevent, but that by no means accounts for all of them.

Prior has enjoyed an illustrious career. He was a key part of the team that rose to No. 1 in the Test rankings and nobody doubts his commitment to the cause. To see him struggling, through no lack of good intentions or hard work, to maintain the standards he once set brings no pleasure.

But cricket can be brutal. And the evidence is mounting that he is no longer able to do what he could before. His misses are no longer aberrations. They are occurring too often and costing England too much. If Jos Buttler is not ready for Test cricket - and it would be asking a lot of a man who has been a first choice wicketkeeper at his county for less than four months - England may well have to turn to James Foster or Chris Read as an interim.

The first chance Prior missed here - Murali Vijay before he had scored - was familiar: it was low and it was to his right. It was, by a generous assessment, the fifth such chance he has failed to take this summer (there have been two other chances which have been closer to his body), with the suspicion mounting that his creaking frame is unable to move quickly enough to low chances to sustain a career at this level.

It might seem that neither chance - the second one a straightforward outside edge offered by Kohli in Moeen Ali's first over - cost England. But in conditions that eased, reprieving Vijay and Kohli allowed Rahane and the lower order to come in against tiring bowlers and a softer ball.

England may also have squandered the best time to bat. By the close of play, a few balls appeared to be keeping low and, if the sun continues to bake this pitch, uneven bounce may become a serious impediment. If they find themselves chasing a challenging fourth innings target, they will only have themselves to blame.