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Match Analysis

India's search for spark on a day of hard grind

Pant exhorted them and Bumrah led the attack, but some more lift might be needed to mount yet another comeback

Varun Shetty
Varun Shetty
Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma have a chat  •  BCCI

Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma have a chat  •  BCCI

Shortly before taking the second new ball, India had their offspinners on, and England's intention was to score as many as possible. Dom Sibley clipped Washington Sundar to fine leg's left, where Shahbaz Nadeem picked up and meandered briefly before throwing the ball back in; in that time, Sibley turned a potentially tight second run into an easy finish.
At leg slip, captain Virat Kohli wasn't pleased. Along with his signature staredown that pops up from time to time with fielding lapses, Kohli had his arms outstretched, incredulous, almost as if he wanted an explanation from Nadeem. It was India's day summed up. Friday's match had returns to cricket on a few fronts - for India, playing their first home game since November 2019, and for Kohli, alongside players who missed games at the end of the Australia tour, back to the field.
And for the most part it was a dull, occasionally sloppy, homecoming as Sibley and Joe Root put up 200.
In the absence of the vaunted Chennai crowd, it was Rishabh Pant who took on the cheerleading job as multiple misfields, 11 no-balls, and some overthrows of his own doing punctuated a day when only India's senior three bowlers found any semblance of control.
For just under an hour after lunch, Jasprit Bumrah had begun to find reverse swing, R Ashwin was beating an unsettled Root off the surface and in the air, and Ishant Sharma filled in nicely during the gaps. Sibley had been pushed into a shell, and Root's favoured sweep was only on display once in his first 60 balls. But England's third-wicket pair battled hard through that period and by the end of that phase, were steadily beginning to pick runs off Nadeem and Sundar. There was little in the pitch, and the seam was already coming off a 50-over-old ball.
About then, India's wicketkeeper warned those around him, as picked up on stump mic.
"Mehnat karna padega, boys." [We have to work hard today, boys.]
The words were prophetic. For the next few hours, as the pitch dried and became more red by the hour, England stretched a partnership that would eventually become the first 200-run stand conceded by India since Alaistair Cook and Root did it to them in September 2018. As it took pace, control from the supporting spinners became even more elusive. Root was sweeping in full glory, Sibley's trademark plant down the pitch to beat mid-on was in effect, and the bowlers unsettled - erring too short, too straight, too full. Just all round errant before stumps. Pant was often the singular Indian voice audible on the mic.
"Body language niche ho gayi bhaiyon. Maahoul banao andar waale bhaiyon, aise kuch nahi hota." He was urging the fielders, especially those close to the bat, to make some noise, to create an aura - something, anything. Your silence doesn't work.
"I think we were okay till the second session, but in the beginning of the last session…[we were] a little bit [flat] here and there," Bumrah said of India's body language at the end of the day. "When there are lots of incentives coming and you take a lot of wickets, the body language is automatically up. Sometimes in the heat it is difficult to keep the body language up, but after a while we were okay. And we were trying to put in a lot of effort to create chances.
"We bowled well in patches to keep the pressure, apart from the last session. We gave a few extra runs than we wanted to. I think we gave 20-30 runs more than we wanted to. But yeah this is how the game of cricket goes. We'll look to do the same thing tomorrow, create pressure."
Bumrah was India's most successful bowler on his first day of Test cricket at home, springing belated life into the team when he pinned Sibley off the day's last ball. India's options on a good batting pitch were limited, he said, alongside other challenges thrown up by the conditions.
"Over here, the ball did become soft after a while. And when the wicket's on the flatter side and the bounce is less, you are left with limited options," he said. "So we were trying to figure out what we can do with the limited things on hand at the time. It was difficult. When the ball becomes soft and doesn't shine really well - because of the new Covid rules that we can't use saliva - it's very difficult during that time to maintain the ball."
"When there are lots of incentives coming and you take a lot of wickets, the body language is automatically up. Sometimes in the heat it is difficult to keep the body language up, but after a while we were okay."
Jasprit Bumrah
When you hold that up against the combined figures of India's fast bowlers on Friday - 2 for 67 in 33.3 overs - it becomes clear why sides have struggled to get big partnerships against this line up recently, in any conditions. But a number of things didn't go right for a team that has won its last four Tests at home by an innings, and the one before those four by 203 runs. For one, they are still only just more than half the usual attack. For the fifth Test in a row, they had to deal with a last-minute injury affecting combinations - in this case, forcing them to pick two spinners playing only their second Tests. And it is perhaps an attack that hasn't had to deal with being dominated like this for a while. But, as Pant said, there was no energy; few excuses can be made for that from a team with WTC final aspirations.
Would crowd presence have helped?
"It depends on individual to individual," said Bumrah. "For me, I don't need extra support or extra noise to push and motivate myself. For me, it doesn't really hamper me.
"I always try to give my full effort and there's no other motivation needed for me than playing for India. This is the best format and my favourite. So I don't need extra motivation."
England are looking at posting between 600 and 700, according to Root, a target that may be informed by their own abject effort in the field against India in 2016 at this venue. India have made a pattern of making unlikely comebacks lately, but that isn't the best way to do things. Fortunately for them, it's early days in the series. There is still time to bring the maahoul.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo