Test cricket is rarely as frantic as the first match played at the newly-built largest cricket stadium in the world. In fact, no completed Test match has witnessed fewer deliveries bowled since 1935. It was short but filled with one moment after another which made you audibly gasp. Like a whirlwind holiday romance from your teens, it was completely crazy and over far too soon.
It is the second time in as many Tests that England were bundled out by India’s spinners which makes England’s selection for the day-night game all the more questionable. It was pretty clear that this pitch would turn with India clearly looking to have pitches that would play to their strengths and exploit England’s perceived weakness against spin bowling.
But England gambled with their playing XI by going into this match with just one lead spinner. For the first time since last August England played a Test with both James Anderson and Stuart Broad, despite having success this winter by leaving one of them out.
The reasoning for this seemed to stem from the pink SG ball swinging appreciably in the nets. During media interactions before this Test the England camp was talking up the chances of the ball moving in the air for the fast bowlers.
“We’ve been bowling with them in the nets they have swung quite a bit and they’ve lasted longer which was interesting to see,” Mark Wood told the press in the lead up to this match. “With the ball, as soon as it moves, every one of the bowlers from the past couple of months is dying to get it in their hand.”
England’s selections seemed to be well-founded when Ishant Sharma got one to jag away from Dominic Sibley which was caught at second slip, early on day one. But that was not a foreshadowing of things to come, as only one more wicket fell to a seamer for the rest of the match.
England’s spin troubles
Axar Patel was all over England in their first innings, carrying on his excellent start to his Test career on his way to a maiden 10-wicket haul including three wickets in four balls spread across the two England innings. Across these two Tests, we have also seen the best of Ashwin Ravichandran, who on Thursday became the second-fastest bowler to 400 wickets in the format. To only be bested by Muttiah Muralitharan puts you in quite the elite company.
That Ashwin and Axar did well should not be surprising, this was an extremely spin-friendly surface. It was so conducive to spin bowling that India’s third spinner, Washington Sundar, sent down a grand total of four deliveries in the entire match. If that wasn’t enough to highlight the folly of England’s selection approach... the part-time offies of Joe Root returned figures of 5/8 and the England captain opened the bowling in the second innings; something he has never done before and chances are something he will never do again.
That is not to say that England having another spinner would have won this game — for that to happen their top order would have had to find a way to make a meaningful contribution in either innings. Across the two England innings, which lasted a grand total 79.2 overs, and it was only Zak Crawley who seemed settled as he made a near faultless 53 in England’s first innings. Ben Stokes seemed to have found a way in England’s second innings before he was trapped LBW by Ashwin for 25, but those two innings were as good as it got for England who veered from shotless defence to brief moments of attacking intent, neither with much success.
Another problem with England’s selection in this Test was the absence of lower-order sticking power with Jofra Archer batting at eight, probably two places too high in Test cricket. This certainly didn’t help, but to blame the bowlers for not making runs when the batsmen failed is missing the real issue.
It is worth noting England have conquered many of their demons surrounding spin bowling in Asia. Just two matches ago in Chennai, Root made one of the great double hundreds on the back of two monster innings in Sri Lanka. But when the needle ticks over to this level of spin, they don’t have the tools to cope, in fact... few batsmen do. Until Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill made light work of a paltry target in the final innings, no one had looked comfortable.
The question then becomes how do England win on pitches that turn from the start, and the answer is that they won’t far more often than they will. But pitches like this are a gamble for India and this one went too far towards the spinners for them to feel comfortable.
By having a pitch this spin friendly, India’s excellent seam bowlers are kept out of the equation (with Kohli joking that Bumrah felt his workload was being managed even when he played). It allows less talented spinners into the game, because a pitch where Root takes five wickets in an innings for not much is one where you are giving a sucker an even shot. All it would have taken for England to win this game was for someone else to play an innings similar to the one Crawley put together in the first innings and the home team are in all sorts of bother.
There is nothing wrong with a pitch that turns early, all is fair in love and Test cricket. But India are good enough that the deck doesn’t need to be stacked this heavily for the spinners; the win England pulled off in the first Test was the anomaly. There is a huge prize available for winning the final Test of this series — a place in the World Test Championship final — and the hosts would do well to request a pitch that creates a game that is a little less frantic.