After dominating at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, India encountered their toughest consecutive three sessions of the summer at Sunday in Southampton, where just two wickets fell and 247 runs were scored by England on opening day.
The day started off depressingly for Indian fans, with news that the Lord’s second-innings wrecker Ishant Sharma would take no part in the third Test. That sense of unease was extended when MS Dhoni, at losing the toss, appeared unsure of what he would have done on the Southampton strip. Midway during the first hour, when Ravindra Jadeja spilled Alastair Cook on 15, you got the sense it was going to be one of those days.
And it was one of those days, when not much goes India’s way. It was a day when false shots and outside edges landed short of catchers and the ball squirted into the gaps. It was a day when good deliveries beat the bat and kissed the edge, only for catches to go down and Real Time Snicko to show the faintest of marks but nothing to confirm it was ball on bat. It was a day when India watched on as a batsman in the worst slump of his life ground his way back into a score of substance. It was a day when they dropped a catch and missed a run out, allowing Cook to bat his way back to form. It was a day when India waited for things to unfold.
In the lead-up to the third Test, India had to decide between attack and defence. Could they afford to play five bowlers and risk losing the toss? Dare they attack with the spin of R Ashwin, at the expense of Stuart Binny? Or should they favour Rohit Sharma’s promise at No 6, drafting in an extra batsman on a track not expected to assist the bowlers much.
Hit by Ishant’s injury concerns, India had the option of opting for a shot of pace in Varun Aaron, but instead went for experience in the form of Pankaj Singh, a stalwart of the domestic game with 300 first-class wickets in 77 matches, and who played a key role in Rajasthan’s back-to-back Ranji Trophy triumphs a couple of seasons ago. On his first day at Test level, the medium-pacer emerged India’s best bowler – and therein lay the problem for MS Dhoni’s team.
Although he did for most of the first two Tests, Bhuvneshwar Kumar cannot be expected to carry India during almost every session. He can have an off day, fair enough, and he did bowl some good deliveries. Mohammed Shami removed Sam Robson for 26 and hustled the batsmen with pace more than Bhuvneshwar or Pankaj did – his use of the short delivery was the most sensible – but was more ordinary than outstanding. Jadeja picked up Cook for 95 but his analysis of 22-6-34-1 pointed to the need for a wicket-taking spinner, not a containing one. An economy rate of 1.54 suggests a stranglehold but truth be told, rarely did Jadeja threaten because there was nothing in the track for him.
Pankaj does not get the ball much higher than the mid-130kph range and though he was robbed of Cook’s wicket, plugged away purposefully. He sagged after a couple tidy overs after lunch and then with the new ball operated at level intense enough to worry Ian Bell; Pankaj was unfortunate not to win an lbw appeal against the batsman before he’d scored a run.
India have endured tougher opening days outside of Asia in recent years – Sydney 2008, Napier 2009, Cape Town 2011, Adelaide 2012 and Auckland 2014 come to mind – and like those examples, their bowlers slipped into a comfortable zone of inconsistency that allowed England to prosper. India’s quicks were not poor, but they wasted a brief period of overhead cloud just after lunch and squandered the use of the new ball. Whatever they tried proved fruitless and their attack looked increasingly uninspired as Cook and Ballance added 158 in 55.1 overs with few concerns. There was precious little swing for any of the Indian bowlers as the sun broke through in the afternoon, and thus Cook and Ballance marched ahead, cashing in on too many stray leg-stump offerings.
Ballance is the type of batsman who could easily have slipped under India’s radar. If India didn’t know much about the Zimbabwe-born left-hander before the series, they are more than familiar with his skills now after his second hundred in three Tests against them this summer. The ball did a bit early after lunch as stray clouds converged overhead, and Pankaj and Shami bowled a fuller length and zeroed in on a precise line. After few early nerves before lunch, Ballance was put under pressure for a couple overs but as India’s pace bowlers slackened in length the left-hander cashed in and moved past a half-century. Like Cook, Ballance prospered through generous leg-side offerings and ground India down. He has left his mark again, and can rest easily tonight knowing that he has put England in pole position.
After escaping at Trent Bridge and winning at Lord’s, today India found themselves pushed back onto the ropes as Cook relocated the focus that had been sapped during his 27-innings drought. At 247 for 2, with Ballance entrenched on a blameless batting surface, and Ian Bell overcoming early jitters on a ground at which he averages over 90 in international cricket, and a winding batting order to follow, England are looking at a 450-plus total and maybe even an innings victory over a side prone to demoralisation. India need more than just wishful thinking to turn this one around.