Joe Root’s England played chess in a bigger arena. By the end of the third day of the first Test, they have inched closer to checkmating their opponents. India finished the day on 257/6 in their first innings with all their specialist batsmen gone and still trailing England’s imposing 578 by 321 runs.
Ahead of the Test series, Ravichandran Ashwin spoke about how England always came “well prepared” for their subcontinental assignments, results notwithstanding. In a recent interview with this paper, England’s strength and conditioning coach Phil Scott gave the lowdown on the team’s preparation for this series and beyond; from team bonding and rotation to unique bowlers’ drills and mental health. The team’s support staff takes care of the preparation off the field. On it, Root plots opponents’ unravelling like he did at Chepauk on Sunday.
What did the England bowlers do differently to their Indian counterparts? To start with, they used Jofra Archer’s express pace with a bit of alteration in the length. The two Indian fast bowlers, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, bowled a lot fuller and targeted the stumps on a slow pitch and in hot and humid conditions, that virtually ruled out any lateral movement. The England fast bowlers, Archer to be precise, bowled a bit shorter, targeted the three-quarter length, extracting more bounce and success.
The Chepauk pitch didn’t drastically change its character on the third day. The normal wear and tear created some rough and occasional sharp turn, and the puffs of dust became more prominent. Otherwise, it was still a good surface to bat on. England’s planning and proper execution helped them achieve what India failed to do.
Rohit Sharma’s wicket was a case in point about how extra bounce was effective. Archer bowled back-of-a-length again, in the corridor. The ball moved away a bit, as Rohit was done in by the angle and bounce. He edged it to Jos Buttler behind the stumps.
The person most delighted with the wicket of Rohit Sharma is probably Dom Bess. Nobody demolishes off spin quite like him
— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) February 7, 2021
Shubman Gill was taken down by a full delivery. But the shortish balls earlier had created uncertainty. In Archer’s very first over, he bowled a leg-cutter to Gill which beat the outside edge. The next ball was shorter and Gill pulled it for a four. The young opener is a fantastic back-foot player because of his grooming on concrete surfaces. His trigger movement is back and across. He didn’t mind those deliveries and was batting with élan. But Archer had been mixing his stuff, not allowing the batsman to settle into a rhythm. Gill beautifully placed a full delivery on middle-and- leg for a four. Another full delivery followed which apparently stopped a bit on the third-day pitch. Gill played his on-drive a tad early and James Anderson took a superb catch at mid-on diving forward. Archer had kept the Indian youngster guessing by mixing his length.
You can already see why @JofraArcher, even in such a short career, is seen as among the best in the world. Already we’ve seen pace, bounce, movement on a deck that everyone else struggled on.
— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) February 7, 2021
The departures of Rohit and Gill gave Root the leeway to bring on his relatively inexperienced off-spinner, Dom Bess, with the degree of difficulty reduced. The two Indian openers love to milk off-spin. Especially Rohit could have created a major problem for the young offie. In England skipper’s ‘game of chess’, Bess emerged as the knight in shining armour.
Bess’ style is more akin to Pat Pocock, who took 13 wickets in England series win in India in 1984-85, than Graeme Swann. He is not a big turner of the ball and unlike Swann, he doesn’t have a potent top-spinner and floater. Like Pocock, Bess has natural drift and extracts decent bounce off the surface.
Virat Kohli was undone by those two factors. The drift forced the India captain to play a little away from his body and the sharp bounce and a bit of turn helped the ball kiss the inside edge on its way to Ollie Pope at forward short-leg.
Ajinkya Rahane got out to a full-toss. Then again, the ball dipped and Rahane’s cover drive off the bottom half of the bat went in the air to the left of Root at short cover. A stunning catch did the rest.
Bess was bringing the ball back into the right-hander from the off-stump. And he was relentless in his line and length. Even after conceding back-to-back boundaries to Pujara through the vacant mid-off region, he didn’t change his tactic. With a 6-3 legside field, the idea was to ensure that the right-handers play against the turn to score runs. Pujara’s nimble footwork helped him overcome the challenge.
— BCCI (@BCCI) February 7, 2021
Yet again, it came down to Pujara and Rishabh Pant to get India out of the hole. Yet again, they delivered. From 73/4, they carried the innings. Pujara unfurled his range of shots – cut, drive, pull, flick, late cut… His footwork was a joy to watch. He looked set for a big one, when misfortune struck.
An attempted pull off a half-tracker from Bess rebounded off Pope at short leg and ballooned to Rory Burns at short mid-wicket. It would have been a dead ball had it hit Pope’s helmet, but the rub of the green has deserted Pujara of late. In Australia, he got some unplayable deliveries. On Sunday, he fell prey to a freak dismissal. Pujara’s 73 off 143 balls was gold standard.
Pant counter-attacked, and made his intention to take down Jack Leach evident. Five sixes he took against the left-arm spinner in his 88-ball 91. The Indian wicketkeeper’s innings had nine fours as well. But once again, he got out in the 90s – a sliced lofted drive against Bess, as the bat-face opened, taking the ball to Leach at deep cover.
The 119-run fifth-wicket partnership between Pujara and Pant somewhat kept India in the game; their second century stand in three Tests. In the second innings in Brisbane, the two had added 61.
With two days to go, Root will have to take a call, should England secure a first innings lead of 200 or more. After the 2001 Eden Gardens epic, captains have become wary of enforcing the follow-on, especially in the subcontinent. India would hope for Washington Sundar and Ashwin to bat long.