India 146 for 1 (Vijay 70*, Pujara 47*) trail England 400 (Jennings 112, Buttler 76, Moeen 50, Ashwin 6-112, Jadeja 4-109) by 254 runs
M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara led India’s bid towards parity in the fourth Test. They are a long way off though – 254 runs to be precise – but the start was promising. They got through 52 overs of play for the loss of only one wicket.
England had fun at the Wankhede stadium, too. The total they put up – 400 – was exactly the same as in 2006. A left-handed, South African-born opening batsman had made a century then, too, and set up a famous victory. Despite the solid start, India have a task on their hands to prevent this Test from reaching a similar conclusion.
They would have gone to stumps feeling relatively comfortable though. Vijay did as he does in Test cricket, making an unbeaten 70 off 169 balls. His concentration rarely blipped, his drives were invariably elegant and his sixes were stunning and sudden. Alongside him, as has become custom in recent times, was Pujara, hurtling down the pitch at the spinners and punching England’s fast bowlers for fours through point and cover. The second wicket added 107 runs mitigating some of the scoreboard pressure that was on India.
The pitch offered plenty of turn and bounce to the spinners. The question, though, was whether Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid had the quality and consistency to exploit that. At first, it did not seem so. They tended to push the ball through quickly, which works well on slow pitches, but was unnecessary here. Then, in the 14th over, Moeen looped one up for the cover drive. A little bit before that, Alastair Cook pulled the fielder out of that region. KL Rahul couldn’t resist the temptation. He went for the shot, the ball dipped on him, burst through the gap between bat and pad and bowled him.
Moments like these would likely happen often in this Test for the surface has pace. Spinners willing to be slow through the air and give the ball enough flight could expect wickets. But England have only two of them in their ranks and India would still back themselves to upset them. Vijay did so when he tonked Rashid for a four and a six in the third over after England had made the breakthrough. Pujara was dancing down the track for his second ball. The match was superbly set up.
It could have swayed in England’s favour in the 32nd over had Jonny Bairstow converted a stumping chance. Vijay, on 45, seemed to have picked the googly from Rashid, but he was a bit lazy on the flick. The wicketkeeper was perhaps blinded because he did not react until the ball hit his left thigh and wandered off to fine leg. More such chances could have been created had England’s spinners been able to hold their line and lengths better.
The visitors remain ahead of the game, though, and pivotal to that was Jos Buttler’s 76. Early on, he looked unsure against spin and was springing out of his crease without minding the length of the ball. However, he was able to put the times he was beaten behind him quickly. His one-day style – nudging through midwicket, dabbing behind point and reverse-sweeping, too – came in handy as he batted with the tail. Eventually, he grew assured enough to pick Ashwin’s carrom balls and even manipulate the field to marshall the strike.
Jake Ball, in at No. 10, became more confident the longer he stayed, so much so that he thumped Bhuvneshwar Kumar to the cover boundary immediately after India took the second new ball in the 122nd over. He stole 54 runs in partnership with Buttler and pushed England’s total above 350. No team has ever lost at Wankhede going past that mark in the first innings.
That’s because of the danger that lurked in the pitch. Rashid faced a ball that was speared into middle and leg by Ravindra Jadeja, and beat his outside edge. Another one, also meant to dart away, held its line and knocked the off stump over as the batsman shouldered arms. India would, therefore, be disappointed that their spinners could string only 12 maidens despite bowling 106.1 overs. They did, however, take all the wickets.
R Ashwin picked up his 23rd five-for. He had Ben Stokes caught behind in the third over of the day, stirring up a DRS debate for, at the time the ball seemed to deviate off the edge, the bat had been touching the ground as well. It was because of this doubt that umpire Bruce Oxenford ruled against the appeal.
Shamshuddin – who continued as stand-in third umpire because Marais Erasmus was required on the field again with Paul Reiffel sidelined after suffering a concussion – overturned the decision. It appeared to be the correct call, though, for there was a visible deflection as ball passed the bat. The only reason it became a talking point was because the evidence that swayed Shamshuddin came from Ultra Edge, which may have picked up the sound of bat hitting ground.
Amid the drama, Ashwin had his 47th wicket in 2016, the most by a spinner in India in a calendar year, going past Erapalli Prasanna’s record that had stood since 1969. He bowled 44 overs for his 6 for 112 and led India off the field.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo