D/N Test, Day 1: Spinners’ day, India’s night

The one-man batting unit was found lacking against India’s spin yet again. After the second Test in Chennai, England batsmen once again fell prey to mental dilly-dallying; how to counter Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin.

On the first day of the third Test at new Motera, England’s batting imploded after tea to be all out for 112. They lost their last six wickets for 31 after the break. Zak Crawley, who was oozing flair and assurance on his way to a 68-ball half-century, became iffy after Joe Root’s dismissal. This England batting loses steel unless their captain leads from the front.

India were almost level by stumps, reaching 99/3, implying they have complete control of proceedings.

England can’t complain about unfamiliarity with conditions. This is their fifth Test in the subcontinent over the last couple of months. The Sri Lanka tour that preceded the India series should have been a good enough warm-up. England clean-swept the Islanders riding on Root’s batting – 426 runs in two Tests, including a century and a double hundred. In the first Test in Chennai, the England skipper’s double hundred set up his team’s win. Root hasn’t scored a half-century in his next three innings.

They are also missing Jos Buttler, whose average was north of 65 in Sri Lanka. An impact batsman, he plays fearless cricket irrespective of conditions. The ’keeper-batsman returned home after the first Test against India, as rotation took precedence. On Wednesday, Crawley aside, the England batting lacked resolve. On a spinning pitch, the majority of their batsmen were done in by straight deliveries and angles from the Indian spinners.

Done in by the straight ones

Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal was a case in point. Axar was introduced in the seventh over and had the England No. 3 first ball. The delivery, bowled from close to the stumps, came in with the arm before straightening. Bairstow played the line and was out leg-before. His review was futile. Bairstow was impressive on the turning pitches in Sri Lanka. India, however, is a different kettle of fish.

In 2012, when England won in India, Kevin Pietersen took the attack to the hosts, while Alastair Cook blunted the Indian spinners with his defensive resolve. The current England team banked on Ben Stokes to be a poor man’s Pietersen. Stokes started well but has gone into a shell.

When the England all-rounder stepped out to Ashwin and played a lofted drive to the straight boundary for a four, it offered excitement. But that was a false dawn.

Stokes’ negative approach thereafter brought about his dismissal. Axar’s delivery spun a bit to beat the bat all right, but Stokes was playing back to a length ball. He was out LBW on umpire’s call.

Root has failed to build on his double century. Some deliveries turned sharply off the deck on Day 1 here. But by and large, the pink ball skidded off the surface. Root preferred to stay on the backfoot and played into Ashwin’s hands. Without any pressure, the off-spinner had the leeway to vary his line and angles. He was enjoying bowling round the wicket. Root attempted a lap sweep against Axar, but barely tried anything to upset Ashwin’s rhythm. He went back to a full delivery instead of coming forward. Ashwin made that one straighten enough to go past the bat, and the umpire’s call went in his favour.

Not walking the talk

Before the second Test, England chief selector Ed Smith told reporters that they have been focusing on building a team that would be successful irrespective of conditions. England were always expecting turning pitches in India. But when the challenge was thrown down, they fizzled.

England came into this Test carrying the ‘meltdown’ baggage of the Chepauk turner. They found a spin-friendly pitch for a pink-ball Test too much to handle. They made four changes for this game and went with four fast bowlers and a spinner. The Indian team management, as it turned out, was a smarter reader of the pitch – Axar and Ashwin plus Washington Sundar’s off-spin as back-up. Washington proved to be surplus to India’s bowling requirements, at least in the first innings.

Since day-night Tests’ inception six years ago, curators have retained grass on pitches apprehending that a barren surface would damage the pink ball quickly, as it has an extra coat of lacquer. England’s first innings was too short – it lasted just 48.4 overs – to give an idea about a dustbowl’s damaging effect on the pink ball. In the ninth over of the innings, as Root went deep into the crease to play an Axar delivery, puffs of dust came out of the surface. It seemingly clogged the tourists’ mind.

Crawley was an exception until he was teased out by Axar. The left-arm spinner made one skid off the surface and the ball missed the off-stump by a coat of varnish. The next delivery turned sharply and beat the outside edge. Then, Axar made another one skid off the deck; Crawley played for the turn and was caught plumb in front. But his 84-ball 53 highlighted the benefits of positivity.

Axar’s 6/38 on the heels of a five-for in Chennai, was to a great deal down to bowling at the right speed. At over 90kph, his skidders were very effective. Axar and Ashwin combined to account for nine wickets in 37.4 overs for only 64 runs.

Later, Rohit Sharma showed that the pitch has no demons. He toughed out the twilight period before opening up and racing to a crisp half-century. Unlike England batsmen, Rohit put away the bad balls. Virat Kohli’s wicket at the fag end of the evening was the visitors’ only solace.

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