It was in the 61st over of England’s first innings that we saw what was perhaps the shot of the day on Friday. Umesh Yadav pitched it wide and back of a length, Moeen Ali stood tall and punched it in front of square for four. The cracking sound of the ball meeting the bat, the fielders standing absolutely still – it was a spectacle all right.
That boundary took Moeen to 18 and levelled the two teams’ first innings scores. England still had four wickets in hand, had a solid partnership going and India faced the risk of being batted out of the contest.
Day two of the second Test at The Oval started with England three down and trailing India by 138 runs. Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh bowled the opening spells and they were quite brilliant. Neither of them gave freebies to the batsmen and stuck to that area slightly short of a length and just outside off.
Umesh removed Craig Overton and Dawid Malan with England adding just nine runs to their overnight score, and it seemed India were in line for an improbable first-innings lead.
However, that marked the start of a gritty England fightback. Ollie Pope, making a comeback to the side, was the anchor and he got together with Jonny Bairstow to stitch a crucial 89-run partnership. The duo showed discipline and as the sun came out, they picked the right balls to up the scoring rate.
The real shift in momentum came in the first over after the drinks break in the morning session. Shardul Thakur came on to bowl his second over of the day and ended up spraying it all over, with Pope accepting the gifts and picking up four boundaries. The next over saw Bairstow hit Siraj for three fours and two overs later, he hit Umesh for two fours.
In a span of just four overs, England had picked up 41 runs and all of a sudden, India, just like the pitch, looked flat.
Once Bairstow perished, Moeen wasted little time and got off the mark with a boundary off his second delivery. The shot of the day we spoke about earlier came soon after and in no time, the left-hander had raced to 35 with seven boundaries to his name.
However, that’s when we got the big moment of the day – perhaps the turning point of the match. Moeen had been hitting the pacers for boundaries with consummate ease up until then. They all seemed natural strokes – he was picking the length early and with no movement in the air or off the pitch, he was letting his elegant bat swing do the job.
But then he decided to manufacture a shot against Jadeja and ended up gifting a lifeline to India. The left-arm spinner had been brought back into the attack to keep things quiet and he was doing a good job. He tossed the ball up wide of off, and Moeen fell for the bait and went for the slog. The ball went up and it was a straightforward catch at cover.
It was another start wasted by Moeen but more importantly, it was a huge opportunity missed for England. They were leading by 31 runs at the time and Pope was solid at the other end. Had Moeen – the vice-captain of the team playing his 64th Test – shown more game-awareness, England could have put the match beyond India.
The conditions were tailor-made for batting and India were running out of ideas. All Moeen needed to do was play to the merit of the ball and the runs would’ve kept flowing as they were. Instead, he had a brain fade and that kept India alive. It took a stunning onslaught from Chris Woakes for England to finish up with a lead they should’ve gotten and surpassed quite easily.
Even so, India completed their comeback with openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul remaining unbeaten at stumps and reducing England’s lead to 56 runs. Unless it’s cloudy on day three, the visitors will fancy their chances of building a strong lead as the pitch is still batting friendly.
And if England do end up chasing a stiff target, having squandered the opportunity to bat India out of the contest on day two, they will look back at Moeen’s dismissal with great regret.
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