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England fail to take opportunity against India

This may have been England's most disappointing batting display of the series

George Dobell
George Dobell
If you wanted to be positive - and you gotta be positive, right? - you might argue that England showed some signs of improvement on the first day of the fourth Test.
They scored 200, for goodness sake. They hadn't done that in their previous five innings. And, in making 205, they surpassed the 193 runs they made in both innings combined in the third Test. The especially upbeat might even take comfort in the likelihood that this game, unlike the previous one, will go into a third day. Indeed, there's a chance India's first innings might still be in progress by the time it does.
But just because Titanic probably bounced a little when it hit the ocean floor, it doesn't mean there was reason for celebrations on the poop deck. For this felt like a significant missed opportunity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the pitches in the previous couple of Tests - really, let's not get bogged down with that here - there could be no reasonable complaints about this surface. Indeed, offering something to bowlers of all types and a fair opportunity to score for batsmen, you might well argue it has been an excellent pitch to this point. And if a team wins the toss on such a surface, they surely need to be compiling a first-innings total in excess of 300 and batting into the second day.
Seen in that light, this may have been England's most disappointing batting display of the series. Again, whatever the rights and wrongs of those previous surfaces, few would dispute they have been hugely demanding. And while England's scores - 134, 164, 112 and 81 in their last four outings - were no doubt inadequate, they were many mitigating factors. Batting has, at times, been desperately tough.
There were few such mitigating factors here. Yes, this India attack is terrific. Mohammed Siraj, gaining movement both ways and generating a sharp pace, performed so well that Jasprit Bumrah wasn't even missed. But you pretty much expect high-quality bowling at Test level. The points is: there were no puffs of dust when the ball pitched here; there were no devils lurking in this pitch.
But perhaps there were in the minds of a few England players? Certainly Dom Sibley and Ben Stokes still seemed to be anxious about the one that turned sharply when they missed the one that went straight. And Zak Crawley looked so determined to hit Axar Patel off his length that he became the bowler's second wicket within 11 balls of being introduced into the attack. On this surface, there was no need for a high-risk approach. On this surface, the percentage shot was less dramatic.
And for all the talk about being "fearless" ahead of the match, there wasn't much sign of confidence in England's team selection. Instead, it suggested a lack of confidence in the ability of the specialist batsmen to get the job done. It looked as if they were still coming to terms with the challenge in the previous Test and over-compensating to the faults of selection in that game. You wonder what message such a selection sent through the team; it felt like seeing your pilot strap on his parachute.
To make this performance more galling from an England perspective, they enjoyed some significant fortune in winning the toss. Had they been obliged to bowl first, the gamble of going into this game with only two seamers - one of whom hasn't bowled 10 overs in a match, let alone an innings, since July - would have been exposed. It may yet be on the second day.
There were some positive signs. Ollie Pope again looked quick on his feet and generally played the spin well, while Dan Lawrence looked busy and confident in registering the second-highest score of the innings. Most of all, Stokes looked, for a couple of hours, as if he were coming to terms with the conditions and the bowling more with each innings.
Still, it's 10 innings in succession without reaching 40 for Pope now, while Lawrence's dismissal, nowhere near the pitch of the ball after coming down the track, was just a bit soft. As Stokes accepted afterwards, scores of 50 don't define Tests. England may have learned a little from their tour, but there's clearly plenty more to learn.
If England were going to claw their way back into the series, they really needed to make full use of this pitch at its most benign and post a match-defining first-innings total. As it is, they have allowed India an opportunity to bat before the anticipated deterioration has begun in earnest. They may already have surrendered the advantage of winning the toss.
The truth is, you don't always have to be positive. Not if it means taking chances and backing your attacking game, anyway. Very often, on good surfaces, you can simply be competent if you trust your defence. England had a terrific opportunity at the start of this day. They will know they failed to take it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo