England Vanquish An Indian Inception

England produced a game-defining performance on day four in Rajkot. Restricting India to 488, openers Alastair Cook and Haseeb Hameed were left unbeaten as England finished on 114-0, with an overall lead of 163. Their emphatic start to the second innings had seen the visitors take the initiative and set up a thrilling finish for the final day.

This first Test put both viewers and players through the mill. It was a game of mental durability, unquenchable vigour and emotional rollercoasters. For fans at home, raised eyebrows on the first two days swiftly made way for unbatted eyelids as an assured Indian batting line-up gruellingly nullified England’s inspired start on day three.

At that stage the game was headed for a draw within a draw; a proper draw as opposed to the cricketing definition. Rarely in a drawn match do we see two sides stalemating in almost all facets, (except the fielding – advantage England.) Both England and India’s first innings were like for like: the batsmen flourished while the bowlers and fielders toiled. The Test seemed hopelessly destined for an unstoppable force meets an immovable object kind of scenario.

Fast-forward to the final session on day five. India are four down. Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali are ripping it into the rough with six close catchers breathing down Virat Kohli’s neck. The crowd is quiet that Jonny Bairstow’s bellows can be heard in downtown Rajkot, perturbing the sound vacuum. The hosts are in an unwinnable position with still 22 overs to survive on a pitch that has gone from road to minefield. How did we get here?!

Defying odds

It all stemmed from the confidence-injecting first innings. England came out for round two with the bat with real positive intent. Hameed looked the part on debut and his fearless display against the best spin-duo in the world was awe-inspiring. Cook, despite looking uncomfortable early on still managed to nurdle the ball around to keep the runs flowing. He later regained his trademark style and road his side to a declaration (309-run lead) via his sixth century against India.

Alastair Cook’s tally of five centuries in India is the most by any visiting batsmen in Test history.

Then came England’s spinners’ second go. They were fabulous. While Rashid got the drift, dip and spitting bounce, Moeen found the cracks, conjuring the dribbler that bowled Ajinkya Rahane. Later, Zafar Ansari finally got one to pitch full amongst a stream of short stuff and coaxed Ashwin into a loose shot. Rashid caught and bowled Wriddhiman Saha who couldn’t contain his aggression, miscuing a poor waft in an attempt to clear the infield. Suddenly there were six overs to go and four wickets needed – madness in Rajkot.

It all appealed to the razzmatazz and showmanship of the Indian skipper. But for once Virat Kohli wasn’t going to be sucked in and simply enjoyed being in the pressure cooker. He kept a cool head and blocked out the remainder of the overs to negotiate India to safety in the first Test. A 49* innings to remember, possibly one of the most valuable there is to be had. The concluding drama leaves us hotly anticipating the next showdown in Visakhapantnam next week.

A draw may not change the score, but what conclusions can we draw as we arrive at the end of this series’ first installment, a potential epic of its own?

Playing their hearts out

It seems like a trivial point but the efforts of both sides were accentuated by the conditions. In the searing heat and on a deck flatter than a steamrolled squirrel, we saw brilliant professionalism and determination. Even after 90-odd overs, Broad was launching himself towards the rope to scoop up and flick the ball to safety. Stokes clattered knees first on to a rock-hard deck to complete a forward-diving catch to dismiss Umesh Yadav during over 156. And on day three, Murali Vijay, like Stokes before him, was only beaten by tiredness and cramp. Both players played knackered shots and almost looked relieved to be out after scoring excellent centuries.

England certainly look up for the fight and you’d fancy them to win at least one out here. A handsome crowd has already lost out to the bookies with the 5-0 punt now liquidated.

No demons for England

What a response from the visitors! After a disappointing conclusion in Bangladesh, they really needed a lift from their batting department. How does 797 runs for 13 wickets sound?

Yes, the pitch didn’t offer much in the early going for the bowlers nor did it break up significantly as the Test went on, thus it could be argued that the result is a false positive. Does it all count for diddly squat?

On such a long tour, confidence and momentum are crucial components in determining the overall result. England may well look back in hindsight at Rajkot with fond “this is where it began” memories.

Also it serves as a massive bonus that there is no fear factor as yet from Ravichandran Aswhin. The number one Test bowler has yet to make his presence felt by the English batsmen. One would imagine that the bunsen turner of Vizag may change things. Although so far his career stats aren’t pretty reading – 20 wickets at 53.4 vs ENG.

Knock-on effect

In any case, England will feel 1-0 up even if the scoreboard doesn’t read as such. They’ve outplayed India in this first Test. Their fielding was better, their batsmen have confidence, their spinners looked disciplined and Rashid has the irreplaceable weapon of the rip-snorter in his armoury. Let’s be frank, no one thought the media be saying that after the last series. What’s more, the batting line-up looks more reliable than it did in Bangladesh; in particular their approach to spin is so far very encouraging.

Cook and Hameed made it look all too easy in rotating the strike and frustrating the fielders, who were made to scurry from one side to the other as right-hander swapped with left. Hameed was exceptional, a very promising talent. In the second innings he manipulated the gaps with ease thanks to a keen eye, which aptly accompanied his deft wrist flicks. It finally appears like things are falling into place for England’s top-order. A personal highlight would be his slap down the ground for six against Ravindra Jadeja, showcasing the modern-day influence even within a measured mind.

Business as usual

Aside from an unprecedented final sequence, this Test was covered in brush strokes of the past. The dominance of particular batsmen, the struggling of Ashwin and the surge of Rashid.

Chesteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay were infallible on a near perfect day three for the hosts. Pujara despite being peppered early on by Chris Woakes, who wrapped him thrice on the helmet, made batting look all too easy. His masterful dominance of the spinners was splashes of Dravid. His classy drives and crease occupation were confirmation of “the Wall’s” reincarnation.

Murali Vijay in his first series against England in 2014 practically earned demi-god status in being the only batsman to cope with English conditions. He ensured that his record remained impressive against the visitors with scores of 126 and 31. His nifty footwork and crisp striking down the ground is a sure threat that’s here to stay.

Both men played exceptional innings where England’s spinners were targeted to great effect. The footwork launched them into several delightful airbourne assaults. The tweakers or as Sir Ian Botham prefers to call them, stand-and-fetch-em’s, worked perilously for little reward, before Rashid invoked watershed. (Rashid dismissed both batsmen on day five and finished with match figures of 7-178.)

English sub-continent joy

This was all too reminiscent of his explosive spell in the first Test in the UAE. Rashid was the laughing stock of the first innings and he returned to help skittle Pakistan for 173, which set up a frantic chase for victory. Rajkot was by far and away his most convincing performance in a white England shirt.

Finally, Alastair Cook’s love affair with Indian conditions continues. It was well identified that he would be a key element to England’s fortunes in this series. His Rajkot century has seen his fifty-hundred conversion rate jump to 0.625 in India.

A wasted opportunity?

We were left pinching ourselves when no less than four English batsmen went big and recorded marvelous centuries. Cook, Root, Ali and Stokes’ performances trailblazed the way into this series in the fashion that had been hoped for in Dhaka and Chittagong. Is it therefore a little disappointing that England failed to make it over the line?

They had India on the rack. And what’s more it was highly uncharacteristic. India don’t do “losing” draws. Since the turn of the millennium they have had their backs against the wall at the conclusion of a drawn Test just once.

It was against New Zealand in 2003. The Blackcaps’ mammoth 630-6d meant that India would have to follow-on on the final day, having posted an inadequate first innnings response. With 70-odd overs to bat out, India were reduced to 18-3, when “The Little Master,” Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed. Luckily for them, Aakash Chopra and VVS Laxman together faced almost 350 balls in order to steer their side into calmer waters.

Overall, England have been the better side here and will be in good spirits despite the fact they have nothing tangible to show for their efforts. On the other hand, Alastair Cook’s men will be very wary of the potential of India’s bouncebackability. The hope will be that this performance has set the tour standard as opposed to the awakening of an enraged beast.

England vanquished an Indian inception, the draw within a draw, on days four and five. Next they will hope that they can go one further and take 20 wickets to vanquish India themselves.