Bhuvneshwar Kumar, on Saturday
London: Of all the terrible pieces of cricket by England since last summer, the underperformance by their pace bowlers on the opening day of this second Test was the worst. Or, at any rate, it was on the same abysmal level as England’s batting, bowling and captaincy on the fourth day at Headingley against Sri Lanka.
Yet the sun, after overnight thunderstorms, shone kindly on England on Saturday and gave them a second chance. A victory here would give the impression that the new regime of Alastair Cook and Peter Moores has finally turned the corner, even if this team is not yet equal to the sum of its parts, let alone greater.
But a victory for India from their current position — a lead of 145 with six wickets left — is highly possible too. The pitch, indented and dusty, is wearing and tearing like no Lord’s Test pitch of recent years. And it is not only the pitch that might hold some mischief for England when they embark on their target: the 54 year-old Australian umpire Bruce Oxenford, without the Decision Review System in place, has made a major mistake in each of the three innings so far.
While England’s senior batsmen, Cook and Ian Bell, have yet to make a substantial contribution under the new regime — 72 the highest for either of them since last summer — the junior members have had no such trouble, and Liam Plunkett joined their number with 55 forthright runs. He followed up with his two best spells yet for England, forgetting the macho-posturing role of “enforcer” which he had hitherto performed this summer, and bowling sensibly instead.
Plunkett’s runs were essential in holding England together after Gary Ballance’s second unfazed century in only five Tests. As England added 100 more to their overnight 219 for six, Plunkett replaced Prior as the man who batted through to the end and smacked 51 of the runs which gave England an entirely undeserved — because of their wildness on Thursday — but most welcome lead.
For the fifth and sixth wicket in his brilliant exposition of swing, Bhuvneshwar Kumar burst through the defence of Ben Stokes and had Broad caught by Dhawan off a wild swish. Kumar has taken 11 wickets in this series at less than 15 each. Stokes is going through a spectacularly bad run with the bat for England: nine runs in his last four ODIs, and nine runs in his last three T20s.
India’s batsmen had four overs before lunch. England’s bowlers had the rest of the day to rue their profligacy in India’s first innings. They had been presented with a golden opportunity on Thursday — and blown it. By lunchtime the pitch was, if very far from a belter, at its best for batting in this match, paler than the rest of the square, no longer equally green.
In the afternoon England’s four pace bowlers were accurate, at long last, after the horse had bolted. The floodlights were switched off, the sun came out and burned down as if it were Baroda or Bihar. India’s batsmen deserved their time in the sun, after being sent in on Thursday’s greentop.
Dhawan cut a ball neither up nor down and was well caught by Joe Root, who could see it coming all the way but still had to dive to his left at point. That at least slowed down India’s run-rate down. If Dhawan had batted until the close, at the scoring rate he has maintained in Tests so far, he would have been 150 not out, India over the horizon.
Instead, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara steadily built an Indian lead. Vijay was more passive, the classical opening batsman who practises self-denial to blunt the attack — rather like Nick Compton if he had stayed in the England side. Pujara was more assertive as a No. 3 should be, and crisper.
After tea came the extraordinary case of England’s non-appearance. The umpires came out, and waited. The Indian batsmen came out, and waited on the boundary’s edge. No sign of the England team, even though they were well down on the over-rate and had 37 to bowl. The final session began three minutes late.
Following such an unpurposeful start to the session, fatalism seemed to be setting into England’s fielders and followers as Plunkett began his second spell. His first burst in India’s second innings had been excellent. None of that enforcing rubbish which had got in the way of England beating Sri Lanka at Lord’s, when he had bowled 48 overs — mostly of half-trackers — to take two wickets.
Pujara was drawn outside his zone, felt for the ball with an angled bat and was caught behind. Virat Kohli walked out, the new Sachin Tendulkar, but was even less successful than Tendulkar has been at Lord’s. He calculated that a ball pitching “on fourth stump” would not seam up the slope and shouldered arms, but it did, to his off stump’s surprise.
Broad weighed in from the pavilion end with a superlative bouncer to Ajinkya Rahane. During his first innings century Rahane had an answer for everything, but not for Oxenford raising his finger after the ball had hit his armguard. The game started to regress to the bad old days before DRS, when an umpire would base his decision on the dramatic content of ‘the catch’ and the quality of the appeal.
By the close, it had become a perfectly poised dogfight on a result pitch.
It would be a shame if it is won by the side which is better at appealing and pressurising a faltering umpire. It would be only the sixth Test win for India in England in 82 years. For England it would not buy the new regime quite so much time but any respite would be appreciated.