Match Analysis

Joe Root caution understandable as England seek reward for hard-won dominance

Wary of India's ability to attack in the fourth innings, England opted for tactics that some will view as timid

George Dobell
George Dobell
It probably tells you something about the thankless task of captaincy that, to look at social media on the fourth afternoon of this match, you would have thought Joe Root was insane.
Root had, to this point, enjoyed an almost perfect game. As if winning the toss - a disproportionate advantage on this pitch - wasn't enough, he has contributed a double-century and juggled an imperfect attack sufficiently well that he could have asked India to follow-on for the first time since 2011*. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?
But so frustrated had some become by England's tactics on the fourth afternoon - not least, delaying the declaration longer than most thought likely - that you could have been forgiven for thinking Root had endured a shocking match.
In the end, the decision was taken out of his hands. England, unsure whether to attack or defend and ultimately doing little of either, were bowled out in the final hour of the fourth day. It left India requiring a world record Test chase if they are to win. More realistically, it left them 103 overs to survive.
It wasn't just that England weren't declaring, but the pace of their fourth-innings batting wasn't deemed to be urgent enough. And it is true that, once Ollie Pope was out in the 29th over, England added just 14 from the next nine complete overs. From a position where it seemed they were trying to set-up a declaration - Pope had been dismissed switch-hitting to cover, after all - it felt like a sudden and perplexing change of approach.
To some extent, that is Root's fault. For so easy had he made batting look on this pitch, that it was easy to wonder why nobody else could match him. But while Root, with his range of shot and freakish ability to manoeuvre the ball into gaps, was able to score at a strike rate of 125 in the second innings, even a batsman as destructive as Jos Buttler was unable to reach a rate half as fast. It wasn't that England weren't trying to score quickly, as much as it was that scoring quickly on this surface and against this attack was fiendishly tough.
This was a point made by Jon Lewis, the seam bowling consultant on this tour, after play. "It wasn't straightforward on a turning wicket with R Ashwin bowling well," he said. "You can't just smack the ball around, all over the place. Joe's in the form of his life and he scored at a really good rate. He makes the game look a lot easier than other players."
Lewis did concede, however, that England had been mindful of the strength of India's batting when deciding on their tactics.
"There was a little caution there," he said. "We felt that, with the strength of their batting and the pace of the game, they could take the game away from us. It's obviously the first game of the series. And while you want to get off to a strong start, you don't really want to give India a chance to win."
While some will interpret such tactics as timid, it seems equally reasonable to interpret them as sensibly respectful. This India team contains arguably the greatest chaser - albeit in white-ball cricket - in the history of the game in Virat Kohli and several other highly destructive players. It would be reckless not to factor such things into the equation.
Yes, India would have to achieve something unprecedented to win here. And yes, Root may yet rue passing up another half-hour of bowling to them on day five. But you don't have to cast your mind back far to appreciate how much the game has changed.
Only a day ago, West Indies pulled off something of a miracle by scoring 395 to win on the last day Chittagong, with the 2019 results in Leeds and Durban also fresh in the mind; not to mention India's raid on the Gabba last month. James Anderson was part of the England side who saw India chase down 387 to win on this very ground in 2008, too. That they did it for the loss of just four wickets underlines what might be achieved.
And then there are Root's bowlers. He doesn't have a left-arm spinner who can gain the bite of Monty Panesar or an offspinner with the control of Graeme Swann here. And, even if he did, look how they fared here in 2008. So, having seen how Rishabh Pant, in particular, reacted to Jack Leach bowling into the rough in the first innings and how Dom Bess struggled with his length, Root could be forgiven for adopting a slightly more cautious approach.
England have been in control for the best part of four days. You can understand why Root doesn't want to throw that away with an hour's extra generosity
It might also be relevant that he wanted to give his bowlers, who had looked a bit weary earlier in the day, another chance with a relatively new ball at the start of the final day. If it doesn't work, they should still have 20 or so overs with another one after tea.
Lewis also argued that extending the required target beyond 400 would give Root more options in the field. In particular, he said, it would allow him to attack more with close fielders.
"You also want to have attacking fields all day, especially for our spin bowlers to have fielders around the bat," Lewis said. "That will allow us to create those chances for those close fielders. So to get as many runs [as possible] and keep the rate high for them, feels like our best chance to win the game."
It will be fascinating to see how India adapt, too. We know that Pant, for example, can attack to win a game. But can he, if required, defend to save one? Maybe this 'target' provides just enough of a carrot to encourage some strokes? Or might it require the batsmen to play a more defensive game than comes naturally?
With Root falling to one which kept low and Rohit Sharma bowled by a beauty that drew him forward and spun past his edge to clip the top of off stump, there remains every reason for England to look at the final day with optimism. As Lewis pointed out: "There is a patch on a length just outside off where there is some variable bounce and there will also be reverse swing. It's nine balls. I am sure we have more than enough to potentially do that job."
Still, you can understand some of the frustration with Root's caution. It is almost 10 years since England, in Kolkata, enjoyed a genuinely match-winning position in India. With such opportunities occurring so rarely, they really have to be taken.
Equally, though, England have been in control of this game for the best part of four days. You can understand why Root doesn't want to throw that away with an hour's extra generosity. It would not only be a chastening result, but surely put the series beyond reach.
Either way, Root's decision making seemed reasonable. Yes, we can quibble with 40 minutes here or there. Yes, one or two batsmen at one or two moments could perhaps have a shown a little more intent. But he is the captain that has won five games in a row overseas. He is the man who could equal the record for the most wins of England captains on Tuesday. It's probably worth suspending judgement on the wisdom of his decision until we see how things play out. Certainty of opinion isn't always a sign of intelligence.
Besides, are you cautious if you slow your car down before corners? Are you cautious if you wash your hands, wear a mask and wait your turn for a vaccine? Or are you sensible? Casinos love brave people. And graveyards are full of them.
*You were wondering when India were last asked to follow-on, weren't you? Well, it was at The Oval in 2011. The last time they were asked to follow on in India was in Nagpur, against South Africa, in 2010. Opposition teams have now had the option to enforce four times since then but have declined to do so. England could barely have dreamed of being in this situation a week ago; India will have to play out of their skins to win this match.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo