India were 146/6 when Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar got together at the crease just before tea on Friday. They had lost their five most experienced batsmen – Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Ashwin Ravichandran – in a span of 106 runs and it seemed like England might even get a first innings lead.
Riding on a heavy shift by James Anderson and Ben Stokes, the visitors had done well to get to that position after India started day two of the fourth Test trailing by 181 runs and with nine wickets in hand. Barring the first 50 minutes or so in the morning, where Anderson and Stokes didn’t quite make the batsmen play enough, England’s bowlers tested the Indian batsmen consistently in the first two sessions.
Leach opened the floodgates by trapping Pujara in front and Anderson came back to remove an aggressive-looking Rahane. But it was Stokes who led the charge for England with an inspired spell. The right-arm pacer, who had bowled just 15 overs in the first three matches but was asked to open the bowling for the first time in his Test career this time around, put in a monumental effort in harsh conditions to bowl 10 overs in the first session and get the prize wicket of Virat Kohli with a sizzling bouncer. He followed that up by removing a well-set Rohit Sharma with a sharp in-swinger.
However, despite the impressive comeback, England had one big concern: they were running out of bowling resources. They came into the match with just three specialist bowlers (not including Stokes), one of whom – Dominic Bess – was struggling to find any sort of rhythm. And with Anderson and Stokes tiring after their long spells in the Ahmedabad heat, captain Joe Root would’ve hoped to wrap up India’s lower order quickly after tea.
But that was far from what went on to happen as Pant and Washington got together to put on a game-changing 113-run partnership.
Pant said at the end of the day’s play that the plan when he came to the crease was for him and Rohit to build a partnership. He began his innings after the lunch interval but 12 overs later, Rohit had been sent packing and Ashwin followed him to the dressing room soon after. At that point, many would’ve expected Pant to up the ante in typical fashion and look for boundaries. But he showed remarkable restraint and match-awareness to buckle down and anchor the innings.
It was only after he got to 55 off 91 balls that Pant decided to cut loose. He scored 20 runs off the next 13 deliveries and once the visitors took the second new ball, he exploited the hardness of the ball and the seemingly exhausted English bowlers to smash 26 off 13. His innings progression showed how far he has come as a cricketer and was exactly what India needed from him in that situation.
“I thought of playing my shots after assessing the pitch,” said Pant. “Sometimes the bowlers bowl good spells and you have to respect them. I like to play according to situations. I think the USP of my cricket is that I see the ball and react to it.”
Washington had shown his immense ability as a batsman in recent months with his match-winning 62 in the Brisbane Test and a gritty 85 not-out in Chennai earlier in this series. And in Ahmedabad on Friday, he did a crucial job for his team once again by being the perfect foil for Pant.
It can be easy for a partner to get overshadowed when Pant is at his best but that is far from what happened with Washington. The 21-year-old did a wonderful job of keeping up the momentum from his end and not putting any pressure on Pant to manufacture boundaries. There is a surety and elegance with which he goes about his batting and the eight fours he hit in his unbeaten 60 off 117 were full of class.
But again, just like Pant, what was most impressive about Washington’s effort was the incredible mental strength he showed in a tough situation. The left-hander was prepared to block the good deliveries and was alert to the bad ones. His technique looks to be as sound as any top-order batsman’s and he vindicated the management’s decision to include him in the XI by providing what could prove to be a match-winning contribution.
At the start of the final session on day two of the fourth Test, England would’ve been forgiven for dreaming about an improbable series-leveling win. But by the end of the day’s play, they had their backs well and truly against the wall as the hosts led by 89 runs with four wickets in hand.
While India will surely like their odds of sealing a spot in the ICC World Test Championship final, what will please them the most is the promise shown by two of their young guns. Pant and Washington seem set to have glorious careers ahead of them and on Friday, they added another memorable chapter in their journey.