India put up improved show
Disciplined bowling from the hosts reduces England to 199/5 on opening day
Imagine Kevin Pietersen, the dominant stroke-player. The visuals running into mind will be something like – drives, cuts, pulls and may be even a switch-hit executed with full authority. Now, drag your mind back to the VCA stadium.
There was a batsman who was struggling to impose his authority over the Indian bowlers on a sluggish pitch, meandering to, perhaps, the most sedate 73 he has ever made in Test cricket. His labor also mirrored in England’s day one total of 199 for five after electing to bat and the overall languor that enwrapped the visitor’s batting on Thursday.
Yes, the ball was a tad slow coming on to the bat, and Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha and Ravindra Jadeja, who made his Test debut here in place of Yuvraj Singh, were on target for a large part of the day, but none of those factors made good enough excuses for England’s go-slow approach. They have been the form-side coming into this match, the team with all the momentum after two Tests in a row; still they bizarrely made no effort to assert themselves over Indian bowlers.
All the batsmen went back to the hut, except Alastair Cook, was culpable of throwing their wicket away. Cook was given leg before to Ishant by umpire Kumar Dharmasena when the England skipper’s front foot appeared to be well away from the line of the off-stump. It was quite an atrocious call from the Sri Lankan, the world’s best umpire.
Let’s go back to the England batsmen’s dismissal. Nick Compton couldn’t judge the bounce, edging Ishant to MS Dhoni while playing a half-hearted defensive shot, Jonathan Trott shouldered arms to a Jadeja delivery that never spun, Pietersen’s effort to impose himself on Jadeja translated into a loose drive on the leg side, while Ian Bell’s lazy drive off an over-pitched Piyush Chawla delivery ended in the hands of Virat Kohli. On Wednesday, Cook had said that his side would have to go with a positive mindset into the final Test, and with the belief they can win the game and seal the series, in which they are already 2-1 ahead. Unfortunately, his call failed to get any response, as the batsmen seemed to be in a cage that they built around themselves.
However, Indians too needed to be given some credit for not allowing the Englishmen a free go. Skipper Dhoni has largely been an indifferent figure through the calamities of Mumbai and Kolkata. Perhaps, knowing the implications of another defeat, the Jharkhand man travelled a different route. He was more hands-on and showed some aggression while placing his fielders. The 86-run partnership for the third wicket between Pietersen and Trott was the brightest period in England’s innings on the day, but they consumed 235 balls for that. An onlooker could easily have taken it for a patient approach by the Englishmen, but Dhoni’s field placing made runs-gathering an all the more tough task for them.
Both Trott and Pietersen love to drive on the off-side, and the Indian skipper blocked their primary scoring areas, employing a long-off fielder inside the circle, along with men at short cover point, short extra cover, gully and cover. It was the kind of field inviting the batsmen to go over the top or try to work the ball on to the leg-side. It wasn’t a task beyond the Englishmen, but they seemed to be scared of taking that necessary risk to push the board ahead or the series-win factor was playing too much in their mind, prompting them to take a safety-first approach.
Their approach meant England would progress at a pace marginally better than an opossum, and the regular fall of wickets added that much more pressure on them. At 139 for five at 67.3 overs, England were in grave danger of getting out for nothing much after consuming a good chunk of overs.
It required the unflappable Matt Prior and the debutant from England’s side, Joe Root, to give some impetus to their innings with a 60-run alliance for the sixth wicket, certainly the most fluent and assured period in England’s innings thus far, and a lesson in how to bat on such a pitch. But it will require a strong-willed effort from England to regain the ground conceded.