Stokes ton leaves India a big task

India 63 for 0 trail England 537 (Stokes 128, Root 124, Stokes 117) by 474 runs

On the eve of the Test the Indian government discontinued the use of currency notes of denomination of INR 500 and above. The memo was clearly not sent to the England cricket team, who raised the first 500 against India in India since, well, they did it themselves four years ago in Kolkata. After a perfect first day of the series, England continued to dominate the sloppy hosts who added two drops, a catch missed because of the captain’s enthusiasm, and various instances of misfields and lazy legs allowing extra runs. The India openers passed the first stage of what is going to be a test of character by batting out 23 overs without drama even though the odd ball misbehaved.

While the batsmen made England’s bowlers work hard, making the most of India’s largesse in the field was Ben Stokes, who became the third centurion of the innings to go with Joe Root and Moeen Ali, who began the day on 99. Stokes banished the memories of his three ducks in three innings against India with an all-out assault in the first session, which brought him 65 off 95 and yielded England 139 runs for the loss of two wickets. Once they began to lose wickets in the second session, England shelved the attacking intent and began to bat time: on these modern Indian pitches you want to score all your runs in the first innings, and even if they come slowly they make sure the opposition bats on a pitch with more wear and tear.

At any rate, a few balls had begun to turn sharply, uneven bounce made more appearances, and some of the reverse swing was stark. At one point, R Ashwin, bowling from around the wicket, got one to turn and bounce sharply past Stokes’ bat. Stokes just smiled. The smile of a man who knew his side already had 377 for 5 on the board. They ended up with 537.

Put under such intense pressure for the first time under Virat Kohli, India’s fielding went to pieces. Every time the ball went to Gautam Gambhir, the batsmen fancied the extra run. Ashwin and Amit Mishra are not the fastest men either; at one point Mishra conceded three singles in three overs when fielding pretty tight at mid-on. Shockingly, though, Wriddhiman Saha, reputed to be a good technical wicketkeeper who has also rescued India with the bat on at least three occasions in the last four completed Tests, was shown up as he dropped Stokes twice.

Keeping wicket for the first time with a side scoring 300 in India, Saha’s feet didn’t go to his left on both occasions. He just dived to his left, shelling a difficult first one and a regulation one after that. Both were on the cut off the bowling of Umesh Yadav – making that four drops out of five off his bowling – with Stokes on 60 and 61. Whether it was some effect of the 14th delivery of the day, with the new ball, which reared from just short of a length and wobbled late to nearly hit him in the face, only Saha will be able to tell.

By the time that ball misbehaved, Moeen had taken the single he needed to reach his fourth Test hundred, widely acknowledged as his most mature batting effort. Yadav, unlucky as he was, also opened the floodgates with one on the pads from his third ball of the morning. Moeen was the first one to take the attack to India, before he left alone a straight delivery from Mohammed Shami to be bowled on 117.

That didn’t slow England down. When you are 300-plus in credit, when you have a dodgy fielding side at your disposal, when you want to drive home that advantage, look no further than Stokes. He ripped every bad ball apart, attacked Ashwin and Mishra, took 11 runs off Ravindra Jadeja’s first over of the day, which he bowled belatedly, and sent India a session closer to needing to dig in for the best part of three days to save this Test.

Questions will be asked of India’s bowlers and Kohli’s captaincy – Mishra, underbowled on the first day, was persisted for eight overs ahead of Jadeja – but this was also the time to enjoy the uncomplicated aggression of Stokes and Jonny Bairstow. The England wicketkeeper, the highest run-getter this year, landed demoralising blows on the psyche of Mishra: first, he lofted him over mid-off, and then, the moment Mishra bowled the wrong’un, he sent a message by not just picking it but also biffing it over long-on for another six. That took him to 24 off 32, and his side to 393 for 5 at more than 3.5 an over.

Stokes had by now begun to toy around with spin: slogging Ashwin, punching him the moment he would land short, welcoming Jadeja with a loft over mid-off first ball. Shami returned to get Bairstow for 46 minutes before lunch, and Jadeja got the wickets of Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid. Stokes continued to enjoy good fortune: mishits kept falling between fielders; when he offered a catch that long-on could have taken, Kohli ruined it by charging back from close-in and putting the fielder off; when Stokes was finally caught, the fielder stepped on the boundary rope.

Once Stokes reached his century, though, it seemed he and Zafar Ansari were instructed during the mid-afternoon drinks break to bat as long as they could to let the pitch wear and to let Indian bodies grow wearier. Accordingly they added 52 in 22.5 overs. Stokes fell minutes before the scheduled tea, which was delayed as Ansari and Stuart Broad frustrated India for another half hour.

Weary they might have been, but M Vijay and Gambhir displayed alert minds and compact defence during a session in which England could give it their all. Five bowlers were tried, with Stokes spending some time off the field with cramps, but bar a few deliveries not much troubled the opening pair. That they were still 275 from saving the follow-on was a sign of the challenge for them.



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