It is a line often used to describe Test cricket: nothing tests a cricketer’s skills, temperament and character more than this format. And often, red-ball cricket is at its best when a match ebbs and flows one way, then the other and you sit in front of a scoreboard at the end of a day’s play and struggle to pick which team would be happier.
Having won the toss, a score of 269 should please England. Having lost the toss and seen 230/2 on the scoreboard at one point, six wickets at stumps should please India immensely too.
Less than ideal start
The pre-lunch and pre-tea sessions were, by no means, bad for India. In fact, they competed hard and never let England sustain momentum for long periods. The control over line and length, as it should be for an attack led by Jhulan Goswami, was impressive. Pooja Vastrakar picked up a wicket in the first session and Sneh Rana did the needful in the second as the first two sessions went by in largely similar fashion.
The third and final session started firmly in England’s favour, though. For the first time in the day, Mithali Raj used spinners in tandem. Whether it was because of the poor overrates till then or a tactical move to keep the spinners going from both ends and to keep the pacers fresh for later, can only be a guess.
In that phase, more so than any other point in the day, it felt like only one camp will have anything to rejoice about when play ended. A 100 for Heather Knight on her 100th international match as captain seemed imminent. Her newly appointed deputy Nat Sciver was arguably the most fluent of batters for England on the day and a 90-run partnership was constructed with the two looking largely in control.
In the 69th over of the England innings, with Harmanpreet Kaur forcing an error from Sciver, the ball lobbed to Deepti Sharma at midwicket. Moving to her left, perhaps a bit too eagerly, she overshot the ball’s trajectory and put down what should have been a simple catch. When such a thing happens at the end of a long day of Test cricket, you fear for the fielding team. Even one in otherwise good form. But for India (more so than England) form meant nothing coming into this match, because they have had so little competitive cricket in the lead-up to this tour, let alone playing Test cricket after seven nearly seven years. Dropping a well-set batter could have easily marked the turning point for the visitors and not in a direction they would have wanted.
Turning it around
But in the 73rd over of the England innings, the opposite happened.
Deepti came on to bowl again, and having been under-bowled until that point, produced a perfect response to the sweepathon that the England batters had been employing. A near-yorker to Sciver saw her trapped in front. Having dropped the catch, she made it up in no time.
And then it was Rana’s turn to spin one past the defence of the dangerous Amy Jones, three overs later. Another LBW, another review lost.
Then came the big one. The fall of wickets had just rattled Knight a little bit, as it was evident in her running between the wickets and edgy shots in this phase, after having looked in control for the rest of her 175-ball stay. And the change of angle did the trick for Deepti. With the arm, she got one to straighten late and it was enough for the umpire’s call to be sustained.
In the space of 31 balls, from seemingly drifting into a position of difficulty, India were back in the match and the two off-spinners brought about the turnaround against a line-up filled with right-handers.
England fall of wickets:
1/69, (Lauren Winfield-Hill, 20.3)
2/140, (Tammy Beaumont, 48.1)
3/230, (Natalie Sciver, 72.6)
4/236, (Amy Jones, 75.4)
5/244, (Heather Knight, 78.1)
6/251, (Georgia Elwiss, 81.2)
It would, of course, not count for a whole lot if India let England’s tail wag or suffer a batting collapse of their own. But for that one session on Wednesday — including a moment where Shafali Verma threw herself to the ground at full stretch at point to stop a boundary in the 19th over – India brought the fight to their hosts and did not back off. Admirably, the turnaround was also led by the new faces.
So much so that in all the six England wickets to fall, there was no involvement of either Jhulan Goswami or Shikha Pandey. The wickets were taken by first-timers to the format, the catches – three excellent excellent ones from Deepti, Shafali and ‘keeper Taniya Bhatia – were also by debutants.
On the day that marked a new challenge for them, the newcomers delivered a much-needed twist, aided by Indian cricket’s old faithful – classical spin bowling.