Monday blues remind England of harsh fallibilities


They will tell you that the beauty of Test cricket is in the ebbs and flows. But sometimes it does neither. Sometimes it is a stream of predictability that cares not for your enjoyment. Sometimes it just happens to a side and, on a day like today, India rode that wave of inevitability more or less all the way to victory. Sometimes, as England found out on Monday (August 20), you just have to accept it. Sometimes, you have to take your medicine.

Even time, that scarce commodity in the modern world, was no pressure on India. They started day three with a lead of 292 and a relatively clear forecast for four and five that meant only a plague of locusts and four blokes on fiery horseback could have given them something to fear.

Whenever a fielding team is in England’s situation, they are always at the mercy of the batting captain. But when that batting captain is Virat Kohli, someone with points to prove and holding as many grudges as international hundreds (58 now thanks to Test century number 23), then you are out of luck. Kohli is more likely to entertain carbs than mercy.

During his knock, he overtook the previous record of most runs by an India captain during a Test series in England. One imagines when Kohli eventually looks back on his time as India captain, he will take heart from being the most successful when wearing the armband. But he’d take greater pride from being regarded as the most ruthless. Days like today buff up that narrative.

It cannot have been much fun to watch for England fans in the stands or neutrals at home. But grinding teams into the dirt is what all the best Test sides do. Steve Waugh’s Australia made history – and enemies – by doing it so frequently. They destroyed many a team running up the scoreboard in the third innings. Even the England side that reached the top of the ICC rankings in 2011 made this their trope: batting teams out of matches, putting overs into the already heavy legs of opposition bowlers and not just winning games but inflicting scars that carry over into the rest of the series. How England fans must long for those days of complaining about conservative declarations when they saw James Anderson, the best English bowler of theirs and anyothers’ lifetimes, hurtling towards the advertising boards at third man in the 108th over, stopping the ball from reaching the rope as the batsmen ran three to take India’s lead to 507.

Like the early stages of grief, there is a very set pattern to how these days play out for the side on the receiving end of the shellacking. England wish there were only six points of note, but really there can be any number to compound the misery. You are very much scrabbling around in a field of infinite dimensions filled with an infinite number of rakes.

The first comes early. After getting bowled out inside a session to relinquish a 168-run lead in the first place, Jos Buttler vowed that England would not throw in the towel. Early wickets were a must. At the start of the ninth over, with India 310 ahead, Cheteshwar Pujara edged James Anderson low to Buttler’s left at second slip. Having moved to the ball with two hands, the white-ball wicketkeeper, perhaps reacting as he would if gloved up, continued with his left hand while the right stayed put. The catch was dropped, but he’d be back in gloves soon enough.

About 20 minutes later, a ball left through to Jonny Bairstow moved late and took with it the left middle-finger of the Yorkshireman. A fracture would be later confirmed, but in the immediate aftermath, Bairstow was in agony and Buttler was already halfway to the changing room to fetch his ‘keeping gears. That first pluck at the seams.

What usually follows at this juncture is desperation. Just when the lead ticks over to “impossible to chase”, which in this era of apps over application, was the 292 lead India started day three with. Now, at 325, Kohli is the subject of a reviewed “not out” decision. Thing is, he hit the ball into his front pad. He knows that. So does the umpire. And, deep down, maybe Joe Root did too when he made that “T” sign and waited to be told so by the big screen.

India, with no need to push the game along at anyone else’s pace, were happy to take the scenic route to their insurmountable total. Pujara, who started the day on 33 off 67, took 80 more balls to tick over to a 18th fifty. Acceptance was around the corner.

Root was forced to think ahead. Before the series started, Stuart Broad admitted that both his and James Anderson’s workload would have to be scrutinised as they entered a period of five Tests in six weeks. But after just three days’ play at Lord’s, the feeling from the England camp was that, actually, maybe they can make it through if they continue to make such light work on the opposition. When Root rolled his arm over in the 58th over, India had won another battle.

Having waited 40.3 overs, we had the first dismissal of the day. It was too late to matter, but the ironic cheers were not for the breakthrough. For England had not only taken a wicket, but they also held a catch. To Alastair Cook, no less: a player with the worst catching success (70%) of any regular slipper since the start of 2015. Go and get the guitar.

But once the gallows humour had been indulged, it was back to conserving scores and preserving dignity. Both are tested when the new ball becomes available.

Invariably it’s taken. It always is in this situation. The hope is for a breakthrough, but the only thing likely to materialise is a steady stream of extra runs. But even before a ball is bowled, Anderson isn’t happy. Umpire Chris Gaffaney has a look at it, but he can find no fault. He smiles, as Root enters the conversation. Still, Anderson makes it talk but his mood is made much, much worse after tea.

The other thing about days like these is that they can shine the harshest light on faults. With tempers already frayed, it can lead to the sort of on-field bitterness that follows the team back into the dressing room.

This series was billed as Anderson vs Kohli, and while the bouts between the two have been box office, Anderson has nothing but a string of moral victories. According to CricViz, Anderson has drawn 47 false shots from Kohli – a play-and-a-miss or an edge – without accounting for the India captain (usually 14 leads to a dismissal). So on 93, when a edge flew to gully, England were on the cusp of a much-needed, albeit inconsequential win. At Edbgaston, Dawid Malan missed a sitter in what was probably his last Test. Now, perhaps Keaton Jennings as a similar souvenir from what might be his.

You might not be able to term it a drop given the ball seemed to make no contact with Jennings’s hands. Instead, at pace, going through his legs and leaving both him and Anderson red faced with fairly contrasting emotions. Kohli had his life and England their fall guy. Another edge, this one more controlled and off Chris Woakes, evaded Jennings’s clasp to give Kohli his second hundred of the series.

The India captain even got his standing ovation, dismissed on 103 to great acclaim, having led India to a lead of 449. He was later seen with a wry smile on his face as the overs started to take their toll on those in the field. Ben Stokes began feeling his left knee, fed up, perhaps wondering if an extra week in the dock at Bristol Crown Court was so bad after all. Cook, too, had to leave the field for a period of time, returning as a necessity to make up the time as he needed to open the batting.

The only thing missing from this catalogue of woe was the patented wicket in the tricky mini-session after the declaration. Cook and Jennings saw themselves through a nine-over period to stumps having chipped off 23 for no loss which, up against a world record target of 521, is like lacing up your trainers before scaling Everest.

Days like today will sting in the short term as well as long. India needed a statement win from 2-0 down and they look set to get it. England have fought but they are in this mess because of their own fallibility in the field and with the bat. And as valiantly as they acquitted themselves, they simply had to let today happen to them.

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