India’s relentless pressure creates Lord’s template
Ben Stokes survives an LBW shout (Getty Images)

Remember Edgbaston, and a seesawing first Test? This series has run so long (and has a fair bit to go still) that it is easy to forget what brilliance we witnessed at the head of this contest. Since then, two one-sided Tests have also been played in Lord’s and Nottingham, which are actual markers of where this long-form version of the game really stands today.

Tests like Birmingham are anomalies, and a lot of factors need to come right for repetition. Principally, it has to do with conditions but we are yet to see another similarly brilliant wicket as Edgbaston this series. Then, it comes down to how two teams match up, and in that sense, we have two equally good sides matching up in this series.

Of course, they have certain fallibilities. England’s top order couldn’t hold a bat in the second and third Tests, nor could they hold a catch in slips. Indian top-order had certain misgivings too about their abilities in alien conditions. The way those two matches progressed, this series suddenly turned into an examination – which batting line-up could overcome its shortcomings at a pivotal juncture in this series.

In fact, it provided a setting for this Test that was different from Lord’s. On that second morning, under a dark cloudy sky, with lights on and ample moisture in the wicket as well as air, Indian batsmen danced to the tunes of English pacers. Trying to save face in the first innings, and save the game in second, they didn’t have anywhere to hide, such was the relentless pressure from the English fast bowling group at Lord’s.

On Thursday, and again on Saturday, you could see the same relentless pressure applied on batsmen. Only this time, they were not Indian batsmen. Throughout this fourth Test, England have struggled to cope with Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. Yes, they didn’t cope with this attack in Nottingham either, but that felt more like an aberration than a norm.

Even in the first innings, when the pitch was green and fresh, and the ball was doing so much, reducing England to 86-6 seemed like a formality. With India chasing the series, and losing the toss, the pacers needed to front up to the situation and gain an advantage. Sure, recovering to 246, the hosts did push back but one (one-and-a-half) partnership is allowed in such situations.

In that sense, India’s day two collapse put forth a setting again wherein India’s pacers needed to do the job. Before the game, Virat Kohli had said that spin would play a role as the game progressed. On a dry, batting wicket, with slow turn and amply footmarks, R Ashwin missed out big time.

For all his experience, and growth as a spinner, over the last four years, it seemed like the Ashwin of 2014, who was satisfied with a holding role and only waited to attack the batsmen. In truth, he got his pace and lengths wrong in this second innings, yet it did mean that Kohli had to over rely on his pace attack (minus Hardik Pandya who has proven to be very expensive in this Test) once again.

And they delivered, never mind that the score reads 260-8 with a lead of 233 runs that some people think is enough. The day started with one pacer bowling in tandem, but as it progressed, at times pace was needed from both ends.

Ishant was his usual self, keeping things tight, working angles to the left-handers (hello Alastair Cook) and playing the go-to pacer for Kohli. As the day progressed though, that last role changed hands.

In the middle of the day, it was down to Bumrah and Shami, at times together and at times in tandem with Ashwin. The former’s quality has assured Kohli of an attacking option at all times, banging in the ball from length and working out different angles to upstage the batsmen. Suddenly, Umesh Yadav being put on the bench doesn’t look a bad ploy anymore. He has brought his clever bag of tricks to the Test arena, and it is a wonder if he should be protected for the longer format more now.

But Shami remains India’s most lethal Test bowler yet, especially when he finds rhythm like he did on Saturday. The number of times he beat the outside edge was countless. Not to mention, he single-handedly kept England batsmen on their toes, particularly in the middle part when he delivered wickets on either side of the lunch break and then affected a superb run-out of the dangerous-looking Joe Root.

Shami also finished the day off with the wicket of Adil Rashid, thus leaving Sam Curran thinking all night about how he has to attack first thing on Sunday morning. Before the game, he had spoken of the pacers’ responsibility to win India this series, and the trio definitely kept their side in the hunt on day three. It’s over to the batsmen now.