Match Analysis

Rohit Sharma's agenda-seizing tempo disrupts England's gameplan

Centurion's proactivity on tricky surface could prompt change in England's approach with the bat

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Day six in Chennai, first session, and the ball was spinning like a roast chicken on a spit. Rumours that this surface was in fact a brand-new offering, rather than a repurposing of the one on which England had rushed to victory inside two sessions on Tuesday, seemed to have been confounded within two overs of Jack Leach's first spell, as his fingerspin started disturbing the surface with ominous regularity.
Day six in Chennai, final session, and the ball was popping like an over-heated frying pan. Joe Root's part-time tweakers were suddenly the most lethal weapon in England's armoury, his round-arm, round-the-wicket offerings extracting top-spin galore to threaten the splice and the gloves with mounting hostility. Even Rishabh Pant's fearlessness out of the rough seemed compromised in the circumstances, although all things are relative where his remarkable style is concerned.
But then, linking those two phases of play - including throughout a middle session of the most docile progress imaginable - there was Rohit Sharma's transcendent innings of 161 from 231 balls.
This was a performance every bit as totemic as Root's double century in the series opener last week - a lobbed gauntlet of an innings from an opener whose twin failures in that contest had set the tone for a flaccid Indian batting display, but who has surely seized this contest with a grip every bit as vice-like as R Ashwin can expect to apply when his turn comes with the ball at some stage on Sunday.
For there was little more that England, realistically, could have done to boost their standing in this contest after losing a very significant toss. Sure, they might have had a bit more luck with the TV umpiring, and they might have found more control with the old ball than Moeen Ali, in particular, was able to provide in his first Test outing in 18 months.
But most of all, they found a batsman in the mood to reap his runs before the inevitable crumbling. "Proactivity" was Rohit's watchword in that dicey early phase, when the hard new ball was tearing regular chunks out of the deck, and a dog-eat-dog mentality seized hold of his innings. "You can't be reactive," he said at the close. "Getting on top of the bowler, making sure you are ahead of him, was very, very crucial."
Aside from a few hairy moments in the 90s, his innings proved as chanceless as it was audacious. Whether or not he took a cue from Root's mastery of the first Test, Rohit's use of the sweep was the stand-out feature of his game, but his dominance of the scoreline evoked a more home-grown icon of Indian batting - particularly when he strode in at lunch on 80 not out in a lunchtime scoreline of 106 for 3. By that stage of the day, he had already produced an innings as agenda-seizing as Virender Sehwag himself, on this ground in 2008, when his 83 out of an opening stand of 117 broke the back of a famous India run chase.
What's more, not only did Rohit go on to double that impact before his late extraction in the evening session, but his departure - in the 73rd over - lifted with it the veil of normality that he had managed to drape over the contest. England may have been grateful for the late breakthroughs that their day's endeavours had earned, but as the ball began to rag once more past the more vertical-batted play of India's middle order, they won't have been thankful for the circumstances.
"Control the rate, control the game" is the mantra with which England's bowlers have rebooted their Test competitiveness in recent months. It's an old-fashioned edict for a new-fangled age of Test cricket, as simple in its message as David Saker's instructions to James Anderson on England's triumphant Ashes tour in 2010-11 - "don't get cut" - but rather trickier to adhere to against an opponent with Rohit's power and poise.
They did plenty right in the invidious circumstances, not least when Olly Stone demonstrated that "fresh" really is the new "match-fit" in England's lockdown lifestyle, after bursting off the bench to confound Shubman Gill within three balls of his overseas debut, before posting a top speed, 93mph/150.4kph, that only the absent Mark Wood has matched in England's contests this winter.
However, Stuart Broad - taking over from Anderson as England's wise old head - was neutered with the new ball then failed to unlock any significant reverse swing with the old, and though Ben Stokes had been expected to play a bigger role with the ball in Jofra Archer's injury-enforced absence, his two overs lacked venom and hinted at an underlying niggle despite the England camp's insistence he was fully fit.
And therefore, as had too often been the case in England's toothless tour four years ago, the spinners had to be called upon rather more permanently than the team's gameplan might have hoped for - 52 overs out of 88 all told, including the bulk of that drifty afternoon session.
It started well enough for both men. Leach has now scalped Cheteshwar Pujara twice in two innings, quite the achievement after Pujara had not once got out to a left-arm spinner in the previous four years, while Moeen - like the man he replaced for this contest, Dom Bess - bagged the biggest scalp of all with his best ball of the match, a ripping offbreak through a wafty drive that left Virat Kohli as dumbfounded as he had been when Adil Rashid bowled him at Headingley in 2018.
However, also like Bess, Moeen leaked his runs at more than four an over, and served up a range of all-sorts - most heinously a first-ball full-toss to the under-pressure Ajinkya Rahane - that denied England any right to control the game once the ball had gone soft. Like Bess, Moeen's predilection for attack can lure errors that tighter bowlers might not unlock, but to paraphrase Shane Warne's famous barb about Monty Panesar, this was the sort of surface on which playing the same game 33 times in a row might well have hit the pay-dirt.
What is more, the tempo of India's opening gambit has presented a daunting challenge for England when their own turn comes to bat. Though they were happy to bat into day three in amassing 578 last week, the advancement of this pitch means there is no earthly chance of dodging ten bullets across a similar time-frame this time around, so their fundamental goal of first-innings parity is already fraught with jeopardy.
As Ben Stokes showed in his duel with Shabhaz Nadeem last week, sometimes it's preferable to "take some runs with you" before the inevitable happens. But for all their merits as obdurate opening batsmen, new-ball counter-attacks are not their forte of Dom Sibley and Rory Burns (Burns' reverse-sweep last week is a reminder of what can happen when he attempts to force the pace) while the absence of the rested Jos Buttler already feels grievous given how imperious his batting can be when given full licence to heed the advice on his bat handle.
Root knows a thing or two about sweeping the spinners, of course. But to judge by what was happening when he was not on strike, Rohit may already have reaped more runs from this wearing wicket than it will be willing to relinquish from this point on.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket