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England lose grip on a gripping day

Before the start of play, Mick Hunt, the Lord’s groundsman posed a question to various types who were allowed near the pitch. When you face the committee’s firing squad, he wanted to know, do you face forwards or backwards?

Torn between producing a pitch for England, and a pitch for the chief executive’s coffers, Hunt became the first groundsman this summer to side with the former and, as a result, was more demob happy than normal.

England certainly got the pitch they wanted on Thursday, green about the gills and with enough moisture underneath the surface (signified by the dark marks of the bowlers’ follow-throughs) to allow the ball to grip, so that it darted about throughout the day, sometimes alarmingly.

The degree of difficulty for batsmen was high throughout, and only Ajinkya Rahane with a resuscitating hundred really came to terms with it, but as ever when the balance is tilted slightly in favour of the bowler, it meant that the cricket was never less than gripping for spectators — another first this summer.

Getting the conditions is one thing; making the most of them entirely another and England’s day was a mixed bag and an ultimately disappointing one.

They were indescribably poor, with ball and in the field, in the morning; much better in the afternoon, when four wickets fell and when they took control of the day, and less effective towards the end when at last conditions eased a touch and India, led by Rahane, doubled their score for the final three wickets and added 150 runs in the evening sunshine.

England were fortunate that the pitch did not flatten out immediately after lunch under the baking sun, otherwise the bad morning could have been even more costly than it was.

Rahane is an opener by trade, having learnt the art for Mumbai in domestic cricket, and it stood him in good stead when he came to the crease with the dismissal of Virat Kohli, just after lunch and the score 86/3.

He saw Cheteshwar Pujara, bowled after nearly three hours of stout resistance, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, caught behind, and Ravindra Jadeja, leg-before, fall within twenty overs of his arrival, and so caution and watchfulness were the initial requirements.

In the evening session, he blossomed, though, helped by some obtuse bowling from Liam Plunkett, initially, who explored the middle of the pitch far too often in conditions that demanded more subtlety, and then the hardness of second new ball, which Rahane and the tail-enders took for 67 in the final ten overs of the day.

With England’s field spread far and wide when Mohammed Shami was facing Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad with the second new ball, there were some inexplicable tactics, too.

There were some breath-taking shots from Rahane: Anderson was dispatched into the Pavilion for a straight six, and there were numerous thunderous pulls to the mid-wicket fence.

His second fifty came in exactly fifty balls- twice as quick as his first, and he looked intent on adding significantly more when he chipped a return catch to Anderson with four overs remaining in the day. The Lancastrian plucked the ball nonchalantly out of the air with his left hand and tossed it away as if it was a lottery ticket that had not come in.

England and Anderson had won the lottery, in effect, with the pitch and the toss, and although Anderson finished with four wickets, he will know that he could have bowled better, especially in the opening session when conditions were at their most testing.

Alastair Cook had two straightforward decisions to make at the start of the day, presenting an unchanged team — there was no way that England could have countenanced Simon Kerrigan on this surface — and bowling first on winning the toss, encouraged by recent history at Lord’s which suggests that batting gets easier as the game progresses. For once his bowlers would have welcomed the decision.

If conditions at Trent Bridge demanded a little ingenuity on the part of captain and bowlers, here at Lord’s, the only requirement was for the captain to have enough slip catchers, and the bowlers to bowl a full length. Maybe there was a hang-over from Nottingham, but for the opening hour there was not enough of either, as Anderson and Broad bowled too wide and too short, and Cook sat back a little too readily.

That rewards were there to be had was clear enough when Shikhar Dhawan edged the eleventh ball he faced from Anderson, but only the second he had to play at, and when Murali Vijay edged Broad to Matt Prior before he had scored. Prior moved too sluggishly to his right, however, as he has done on a number of occasions so far this summer and spilled the chance.

Vijay escaped and it was another seventeen crucial overs before England were to see the back of him, when he edged Plunkett to third slip as he looked to turn the ball into the leg-side. England ought to have had him twice more before he got to double figures, as well, but edges flew through untenanted areas at fourth slip and gully, fielders moving into these positions after rather than before the edges had come.

Prior is clearly raging against the dying of the light right now, fighting a creaking body and the threat of a younger man. He put down Kohli as well, on the point of lunch, after Cook had given Moeen Ali an exploratory over.

The edge was a thick-ish one, and the ball almost stuck in Prior’s right glove, but it didn’t and, grassed, it added another question mark against the wicket-keeper’s immediate future. Ali’s off-spin, meanwhile, is travelling in the right direction: keeping things simple he bowled tidily when asked, and later picked up Jadeja, pushing forward on the wrong line.

England’s out-cricket certainly improved after lunch, possibly after some stern words from David Saker. When Kohli edged Anderson to Prior, and Stokes nipped one through Pujara’s defences, the common denominator was a full length that encouraged each batsman to play forward.

Pujara had batted carefully for almost three hours and although his 28 will go unremarked upon in years to come, it was one of those innings that was more significant than the score suggests.

It is hard to think that four years ago, when England hammered India 4-0, many of the senior batsmen of the time would have battled and scrapped as Pujara did either side of lunch; hard to think, too, that England’s bowlers of four years ago would have wasted such an opportunity as lay before them Thursday.