After the heady high of Brisbane and beating Australia Down Under on pitches that always seemed to have something for the bowlers, India arrived in Chennai in high spirits. But the hosts were greeted by a wicket that did the exact opposite and a resolute pair of England batsmen who simply didn’t want to give their start away.
Joe Root (128 not out off 197 balls) and Dom Sibley (87 off 286) put on a 200-run partnership to put England in the driver’s seat at the end of day one in the opening Test. Jasprit Bumrah picked up two wickets and Ashwin Ravichandran got one, but Indian fielders were sent on a bit of a leather hunt by the visitors. At close of play, England were 263/3.
England skipper Root, playing in his 100th Test, won an important toss and elected to bat first without any hesitation. There had been some grass on the wicket in the days leading up to the first Test but by the morning of the game, there was nothing much left on the wicket. India skipper Virat Kohli revealed that he would have done the same if he had won the toss and that was that.
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The England openers, Rory Burns and Sibley, put on 63 unhurried runs in the first session and they looked so in control that Kohli and India looked visibly worried.
But then Burns gave India a lifeline when he was dismissed completely against the run of play while attempting to play the reverse sweep off Ashwin. A few balls later Dan Lawrence was trapped LBW by Jasprit Bumrah. From 63/0, England became 63/2 and there was perhaps a thought (influenced by what we saw in Australia no doubt) that a collapse might just happen.
But then Sibley was joined in the middle by the in-form Root and together, the duo simply went about the process of piling on the first innings runs that are crucial in India.
Sibley employed what many Indians would refer to as the Cheteshwar Pujara template. He hung in there, didn’t worry about the runs too much but at the same time put the bad balls away. Over the years, India have seen Pujara do this to so many teams but here, Kohli and his team got a taste of what it feels like to be at the other end of a broad bat.
But Sibley on his own wouldn’t have troubled the Indians too much and that is where Root’s brilliance drove the home team into a corner.
When Root came in to bat, England were in trouble. They had just lost two quick wickets and India knew that if they could get the England skipper early, they really would be in a position of great strength.
But Root did what all good batsmen do. He initially looked to absorb all that the Indian bowlers could throw at him. He didn’t want his team to lose another wicket and he focussed on that. He got to 18 off 62 balls very carefully.
Then, he looked to consolidate – get the singles flowing, look for the odd four. He put the sweep shot away earlier, despite the great success it has got him, and concentrated on playing with the straight bat against Ashwin, Ishant Sharma and Bumrah. But the moment Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar were introduced into the attack, he looked to take more initiative. The increased run-rate was evident in the manner he reached his 51 off 110 balls.
Then, finally, with the bowlers tiring, he found an even higher gear. It helped that the pitch wasn’t doing anything but at no point did Root looked like he was inclined to throw it away. The sweep shot was now brought into play, the switch hit… the reverse sweep… all followed. Sibley did his thing at one end but the effortless manner in which he accelerated left India’s bowlers gasping for breath.
And, when it felt inevitable, he reached 100 off 164 balls.
It was his third century in a row – after scoring 228 and 186 against Sri Lanka at Galle – and it was near-flawless. The Indian bowlers weren’t given a chance. By the end of the day, Root’s strike-rate was 64.97.
The pitch in focus
In the last over of the day, India finally got another wicket to end the 200-run stand between Sibley and Root. They shut shop and looked to play out the day and Bumrah sneaked in the yorker to trap the opener leg before the wickets.
Given how well Root batted one could just say that it was his day and doff your hat to him but there are two aspects that stood out.
One was that Washington had little control when he was brought on to bowl. He bowled 12 overs and was carted around for 55 runs. Given how the pitch is playing, would India have been better served by playing Kuldeep Yadav instead of a spinner who can also bat? The left-arm wrist spinner last played a Test for India in January 2019 and this wait cannot be good on his nerves. Nadeem’s indiscipline with the no balls did not help either, and the boundaries came far too easy for the visitors.
The other big talking point will be the pitch. There was no bounce or seam movement on offer and no spin either. For a first day pitch, it needed to give a little more to the bowlers because otherwise, it does make for a rather unequal contest and that certainly isn’t what the doctor ordered.
Root believes that the pitch, though slow, will eventually take turn but for England to take advantage of that they will need to convert this start into a huge first innings that will, in turn, allow them to keep the pressure on Kohli and Co when they come out to bat.
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