India slow the pace as they play the patience game

They knew bowling first in Chennai would offer no help so they shifted their plans to do their best to contain England

Varun Shetty
Varun Shetty
A lesser known facet of home advantage is how quickly you can gauge that you might be in trouble. After losing the toss on a pitch where they were also looking to bat first, it was clear that India were already looking to be conservative with their bowling plans.
Ishant Sharma began on Friday with two slips and a gully, not the customary combination of three, and Jasprit Bumrah was already moving catchers from the off side into the leg side a few balls into his first over. It was clear from the first session of the match - there wouldn't be too much assistance, and the edges weren't likely to carry. Even R Ashwin, who will be India's primary line of attack in this series, had to switch between plans in that early session.
It is, quite simply, what you must do as a bowling team in the first few days on pitches like these, and in conditions like these. On the balance of it, India could feel relatively happy at England's scoring rate: 263 on the first day, 292 on the second, and with an intention to bat at least an hour into day three.
"The plan on such wickets should be to bowl with discipline," left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem said at the end of day two. "If you try to look for wickets on this pitch, you tend to give runs. So the plan was to stay as disciplined as possible and if the batsman becomes adventurous, then you might create some chances. As a team, and for myself, that was the plan."
Joe Root had said at the end of the first day that England were looking to score in the region of 600, a total that is still within their sights. And one, to go by Ben Stokes' post-day comments, that they weren't necessarily looking to score by the end of day two.
"No. Before anyone asks - there was no thought whatsoever of a declaration tonight.," Stokes said. "That would be stupid, if we won the toss and batted first. You just get as many runs as you can out here in India. If we can bat for another hour in the morning we'll be very happy with that."
That is the flip side: England's argument is that the worst of this pitch will come when India bats; an argument that is the basis of them being, by quite a way, in pole position in this Test.
"Generally wickets don't get any better here in India, especially when the heat blazes on it and you put 90 overs on it a day," Stokes said. "It's going to get drier, break up, deteriorate. Just because we've got big first-innings runs, it doesn't give us the right to bowl them out twice as we hope to do. We've still got a lot of hard work to do as a bowling unit. It's tough to take 20 wickets anywhere. But out here 20 can be hard to come by. We know we have a big challenge ahead."
To stay No. 1 on the Test Championship table, India need to win this four-match series by a two-game margin; while staying alive in this Test will take a herculean batting response, defeat would only occur if England are able to bowl them out twice. It is a patience game they were willing to play, as Nadeem pointed out, and one that they executed with relative success given how the day, and Stokes' innings in particular, had begun.
Having come out on the better side of a couple of half-chances, Stokes' decision to use attack as a form of defence - "decided I'd rather get caught at deep square than spooning one up to short leg" - not only bore quick runs, but only added merit to the theory that the surface bore no batting demons. With an increasingly confident Root at the other end, and the enterprise that England's lower order is known to provide, things could have been a lot worse for India than 555 for 8 at 3.08 - a scoring rate that nearly matches their first-innings rate when they lost in Chennai in 2016.
"[Root's] recent form is really good and he's been sweeping really well. To bowl to him you need plans, to stay tight on the stumps and not provide width," Nadeem said. "Every spinner has problems when a batsman starts sweeping you, but at the same time you have to stick with your line and length and wait for your time. Wait for the batsman to make a mistake. That's what we were doing."
England's innings tapered off following Root's dismissal, from which point their scoring rate until stumps was exactly 3. The wickets of Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer, England's two lower-order enforcers, off consecutive Ishant deliveries played a significant role in that.
"They were crucial because he dismissed Buttler and Archer, back-to-back. On a pitch like this, you get uplifted as a team when that happens. They were important wickets because they might still have been six-down and had a frontline batsman at stumps. Now we're bowling to two bowlers, so in some ways that's an upper hand," Nadeem said.
And that is the other thing with knowing you're in trouble - any sort of upper hand you see can only be relative. At this point in the Test, England have done everything they wanted to do, and are continuing to set the tone. But India won't mind too much that it is not a rapid one.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo