A wicketless first session. An unflinching Joe Root
raising the bat - more than once - as if toasting a jolly weekend crowd standing up in ovation. The scoreboard ticking over for England. A slowing pitch showing no mercy on a sunny Saturday. England in the ascendancy.
Were India right in not playing R Ashwin
? That question popped up, again, early into the second session as Root and Jonny Bairstow chipped away at India's first-innings total. In the first session, England's run rate was 3.46. In the second, it climbed to just under 4. There were nine fours in the first session, 12 in the second. Before lunch, India would have felt hopeful, with the new ball to be taken seven overs after the break. Midway into the second session, England were starting to think about taking the lead.
Naturally, then, the Ashwin question came up. But then, India had picked their four best fast bowlers believing they could get 20 wickets. Their initial challenge today was to combat a slow surface with a worn-out ball against settled batters in the first session. It was never going to be easy. Only Jasprit Bumrah
stood out in the first two hours, relentlessly attacking Root and Bairstow in a probing spell of fast bowling, and the only one to repeatedly make the batters play and miss. With a spell of 6-2-11-0, Bumrah showed how the surface could be factored out if you were able to stick to the plan.
That might have inspired Mohammed Siraj
to return from the Pavilion End after the break reinvigorated and with a targeted plan: to fire in short-pitched deliveries endlessly. It was not easy, especially since the ball was 70-plus overs old and the pitch was uncompromising. But Siraj mounted the pressure, firing in short ball after short ball. Eventually, Bairstow's patience and resilience were broken. He flinched against a ball Siraj delivered from wide of the crease from around the wicket, which kept climbing and went off the glove for an easy catch.
But Root and Jos Buttler immediately restored the advantage as Bumrah, along with Ishant Sharma
and Mohammed Shami
, failed to dominate with the new ball straightaway. Shami was the weakest link in the Indian pace quartet as he struggled with not just his rhythm but the lines, failing to supplement the pressure created at the other end. That tested Kohli's patience who was busy changing the bowlers after mini spells.
It was a critical juncture, not just from the day's point of view, but one where India could have easily let the game slip away. Just then Sharma came back from the Pavilion end and used the slope to his advantage by initially angling the balls into Buttler. At Trent Bridge Buttler had been bowled leaving the ball on the off stump. Today, Sharma burst through Buttler's defence to shake his off stump and let out a guttural cry. Sharma had been challenged after missing out playing at Trent Bridge due to fitness issues. On all four days of the Test he was busy doing fitness drills alongside the Indian medical staff. He was hungry but not desperate.
Post tea India pumped up the pressure as England's scoring rate halved to nearly two runs an over. While that would not ruffle Root, it would bother Moeen Ali, who had dashed off the blocks punishing Siraj for pitching wide and short on off stump. Sharma sensed he could build the pressure on Moeen considering he has good numbers against left-handers. It did not take him long to force Moeen to poke at a delivery that nipped in and tucked out while taking the edge en route to Kohli at first slip. Next ball Sam Curran went in similar fashion, picked easily at second slip.
Sharma is now one short of becoming the first Indian fast bowler to take 50 Test wickets in England. Today he used all his experience to understand the situation and help India build the pressure. Sharma and Siraj created the chances and remained persistent with their questions. Thrice in an over Siraj thudded into Ollie Robinson's front knee. All three deliveries were pitched on the same good-length spot, with scrambled seam. All three times Siraj was convinced it was going to hit leg stump and ran up to Kohli pleading to use the one last review India had after Michael Gough remained unconvinced. Kohli eventually agreed the third time. All three times the ball would just clip the outside of the leg stump.
"Come on, mate, **** sake," Kohli exhorted loudly after the third time Siraj was unlucky. Siraj walked by Gough with his bulging eyes and shaking head. Gough put an arm around the shoulder of Siraj, patting his back and asking him to carry on. Siraj did not give up. He would return the next over, push the length slightly fuller and rap Robinson again on the front knee. Gough this time raised his finger. England reviewed and Siraj had the last laugh.
That uncompromising attitude is one reason this Indian fast bowling attack is successful across continents. Nothing sums up that attitude better than Bumrah's final over of the day which became a piece of theatre lasting nearly 10 minutes. The 10-ball over might have contained four no-balls, but it will be remembered more for the short-ball barrage Bumrah attacked England's No. 11 with, including the first ball that hit Anderson's helmet - forcing him to take a concussion test.
Bumrah was not apologetic to the end. As Root walked out raising both hands to a standing ovation immediately after Shami had bowled Anderson on the final ball of the day, Bumrah walked behind Anderson raising both hands. It is difficult to know exactly what was said but it is fair to assume Anderson had taken unkindly to India deploying bouncers at him. As they climbed the steps into the Long Room, Kohli and Root would be seen talking animatedly.
At lunch India were pushed into a corner. But they refused to be pushed on the back foot and credit must go to Siraj, Sharma and Bumrah.