In an era of faster, harder, shorter – when the virtue of a young batsman is increasingly judged by strike-rate rather than overs endured – Haseeb Hameed produced a throwback innings to match that produced by his captain and opening partner, Alastair Cook, as England launched what already counts as a heroic rearguard, irrespective of what may come to pass on the fifth and final day at Visakhapatnam.
While Cook and Hameed were in harness, calmly withstanding India’s best efforts throughout a magnificent opening stand of 75 that spanned 50.2 overs (which is longer, incidentally than four of Australia’s last eight completed innings), survival had seemed very much within England’s grasp – much as it had done for South Africa in similar circumstances 12 months ago, when AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla came together for another mighty blockathon in Delhi.
But, in a devastating denouement in the final half hour before stumps, England lost both of their incumbents to a pair of memorable lbws – Hameed for 25 from 188 deliveries, pinned on the shin as R Ashwin grubbed an unplayable offbreak along the deck in a manner utterly reminiscent of Nasser Hussain’s shooter against Carl Hooper in 1997-98.
Then, in the final over of the day, Cook, the rock of England’s resistance, played once too often across the line to Ravi Jadeja, and Kumar Dharmasena raised his finger. The umpire’s judgment was spot on on this occasion, for the ball was heading straight for middle and leg, but with India already out of reviews and Dharmasena’s relationship with DRS at an all-time low, he deserved credit for trusting his judgment at such a critical juncture.
That late strike allowed India to leave the field with the spring back in their step, and Virat Kohli took the chance to gather his men into a huddle before they returned to the dressing room. India remain strong favourites on a surface that will compromise the more stroke-based techniques in England’s middle order – not least that of Ben Duckett, who is next man in to join Joe Root when play resumes tomorrow – but if any further proof were needed that this five-Test series will be a fight to the finish, this was it.
Not for the first time in this match, England’s determination with the bat had been replicated with the ball. With Stuart Broad in another of his rhythmic moods, and with Adil Rashid mixing it impressively to claim four wickets in the morning session, including the prize scalp of Kohli for 81, it required a spiky tenth-wicket stand of 42 between Jayant Yadav and Mohammad Shami to revive India’s second innings, as they slipped from their overnight 98 for 3 to 204 all out on the stroke of a delayed lunch break.
Of course, England’s success with the ball wasn’t entirely encouraging, given what it implied about the challenge of batting last, but they were happy to settle for pyrrhic victories wherever they could find them.
Broad was particularly eager to strike some psychological blows. He may not feature in next week’s third match in Mohali but, buoyed by the confirmation that his foot injury was not as severe as he might have feared, he produced one of his most skilful spells of a stellar year, manipulating the old ball with cut and cross-seamers alike, and a variety of angles on the crease. He deserved more than just the scalps of Ajinkya Rahane and Ashwin for his morning efforts, as he finished with figures of 4 for 33 in 14 hard-pounding overs.
Broad’s success was a reminder that seam, as well as spin, can play a part when surfaces start to crumble, and Hameed received a similarly timely reminder from the very first ball he received in England’s rearguard – a skiddy bouncer from Shami that rapped him on the glove as he took his eyes off the ball. But, when tea was taken 28 overs later, he was looking settled and solid, 12 not out from 84 balls, and oblivious to the attentions of up to four close catchers round the bat.
It was a staggering display of technique, resolve and stamina way beyond his tender years, and further enhanced the impression that he is The One, as far as England’s long-term opening ambitions are concerned.
However, Hameed could have asked for no better role model in his defiance than Cook, England’s past master in the art of batting time, whose long strides have been so adept for so long at smothering the attentions of Asian spinners.
Kohli shuffled his pack largely in vain for the first 33 overs of England’s innings, resuming after tea with his seamers reunited but still no way through England’s defiance. But, then, suddenly, he hit upon the right formula, bringing Jadeja on at the Subba Rao End to target the footholes outside Cook’s off stump, with Ashwin handed the duties from the Vizzy End where Broad’s cutters had found their purchase.
The heightened threat to both batsmen’s outside edges prompted a more proactive response, with Cook lining up a series of cuts and a well-placed drive through the covers for four to combat Jadeja, before Hameed responded to an Ashwin drifter that beat the bat by walloping his next ball hard and flat through mid-off for his first boundary in 80 deliveries from the spinners.
On 45, Cook survived a reviewed lbw against Jadeja that was adjudged to be turning down the leg-side, although had umpire Rod Tucker raised his finger, it would have stayed up. One over later, he was living dangerously again, when Ashwin implored Kohli to take a second look at another lbw that he was convinced had squeezed pad before bat. Ashwin was right, but the impact was adjudged to be umpire’s call. India, somewhat disbelievingly, had burned through both of their reviews in the space of five balls.
But then, with England’s thoughts just beginning to drift towards stumps, came the brace of body blows that undermined so much of their good work. All is not yet lost, with Root in a mood to atone for his wasteful first-innings dismissal, and Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow already attuned to the challenge of batting long on this surface. But as Hameed’s demise showed, accidents can and will happen in the fourth innings. India will believe victory is only a matter of time.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket