If there were two things that England would’ve hoped for at the start of the fourth Test against India, it would’ve been to win the toss and see a bit of grass on the Ahmedabad pitch. And that’s exactly what they got at Motera on Thursday.
Joe Root elected to bat first, which was undoubtedly an advantage for the visitors, and the surface looked a lot firmer than it did in the previous two Tests in the series.
Almost all the talk after India’s 10-wicket win in the third Test centered on the nature of the pitch. While several former England cricketers reckoned the surface on offer for the day-night game was sub-standard, the likes of Virat Kohli and Ashwin Ravichandran were firm in their belief that the criticism was unfounded.
Which is why all eyes were once again on the pitch in the build-up to the final match of the series. As expected, there was a generous layer of grass to begin with but that was trimmed down each day before the game began. Fortunately for England, though, the curator decided to leave some grass on the surface this time around and that meant there would be less exaggerated turn at the start.
England had the opportunity to make the most of the fresh surface and post a decent total (more than 300 at least) to stay in the contest. Credit to them that they did put in a more sincere effort with the bat than in the previous two Tests, but in the end, the Indian spinners still did the damage.
Improved England show
Despite a worrying start that saw openers Zak Crawley and Dominic Sibley, along with skipper Root, fall cheaply, England found contributions in the middle order thanks to some resolute batting. Jonny Bairstow (28 off 67) shook off the pair he got in the last game to spend time at the crease, Ben Stokes (55 off 121) bounced back to play a typically entertaining knock, Ollie Pope (29 off 87) put in a hard grind, and Daniel Lawrence (46 off 74) played some attractive strokes at No 7.
These innings helped England stitch together much-needed partnerships, which is something they weren’t able to do in their two defeats in the series.
But what will disappoint them is that none of these innings or partnerships went big. They showed promise but couldn’t capitalise to really put India on the back foot and England just about managed to cross 200 for the first time in six innings.
While part of the blame for that does fall on mistakes by England’s batsmen – the gap between Sibley’s bat and pad, Crawley’s casual attempt to hit in the air, and Lawrence’s wild slog – the thing that put relentless pressure on the visitors was the superb, all-round bowling display by the Indians. And that was the standout feature of the opening day’s play of the fourth Test.
Axar’s dream start
Axar Patel continued the dream start to his Test career by topping the wicket-taking column once again with a four-for. In England’s first innings of the third Test, the left-arm spinner was brought on in the seventh over and he struck with his very first ball. On Thursday, Kohli introduced him in the attack in the sixth over and he provided the breakthrough again with just his second delivery. It was the perfect arm ball that skid through Sibley’s defence and rattled the stumps.
The 27-year-old followed that up with a smart change of length to get the better of Crawley. The right-hander was looking to use his feet and be positive again. But Axar was a step ahead and pulled the length back to induce the false shot and get a top edge. And later in the innings, he removed the well-set Lawrence with a similar delivery that was angled in but wasn’t nearly full enough and led to a stumping.
Ashwin, meanwhile, was surprisingly given a limited amount of work for the majority of England’s innings. He bowled just eight of the first 52 overs but his 12-over spell from there on, which began just before tea, was full of class. Pope had found some rhythm by the time the third session began and was being busy against the off-spinner, who had knocked his off-stump back twice in the previous Test with stunning deliveries.
Pope was watchful and committed while playing on the front foot, while also picking runs off the back foot whenever an opportunity presented itself. Ashwin kept pitching it around the off-stump, turning it back in as well as zipping it through, but was being met with resolute defending. However, his patience finally paid off as Pope ended up getting an unfortunate inside-edge that popped up to short-leg. It was another important moment in the day.
While Axar and Ashwin got the bulk of the wickets yet again, Mohammed Siraj and Washington Sundar made key contributions too. Siraj impressed yet again by bowling skillfully with the new ball. He got the all-important wicket of Root with a brilliant delivery that came back in sharply to trap the right-hander in front. And he returned to the attack and delivered a similar ball that dismissed a dangerous-looking Bairstow.
The most important wicket of the day, though, was provided by Washington. Stokes seemed set for a big one as he got to his 24th Test half-century by expertly mixing caution with aggression. He had missed out in the last two games but seemed to have found his zone and was keeping the scoreboard ticking without a fuss.
Kohli brought in Washington into the attack in the 39th over and the off-spinner beat Stokes’ outside edge with a beauty off his very first ball. The 21-year-old ended up delivering a fantastic seven-over spell (which was his only spell in the innings), where he bagged the prize wicket of Stokes. He kept turning the ball away from the left-hander from around the wicket before slipping in the perfect straighter ball to strike the pad. It was, perhaps, the highlight of the day for the hosts as Stokes seemed capable of putting England in a strong position.
The hosts finished the day at 24/1, with Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara at the crease, and trailed by 181 runs. It was a fantastic position to be in after losing the toss and being asked to bowl first. And they had their top-class bowling attack to thank for it.
Axar, Ashwin, Siraj and Washington were persistent and pounced on any lapse in concentration that the opposition had. So much was made of the advantage that the earlier pitches provided India but their bowlers showed on Thursday that despite not being a raging turn, they still have England’s number. And this time, perhaps, no one can hesitate in saying that India’s bowlers were simply too good for England’s batters.