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More Last-Day Blues for England

After a brief rest, this gripping Test series reconvened at The Oval under gloomy skies, which persuaded Joe Root to bowl first. Both sides had made changes to their line-ups. For England, Jos Buttler was absent while his wife was giving birth to their second child, which meant that Jonny Bairstow took over as the batsman/keeper, while Moeen Ali was appointed vice-captain. This allowed Ollie Pope back into the side. Meanwhile, Sam Curran was omitted after a string of fairly modest performances, and Chris Woakes returned after injury for his first first-class game since August 2020. His record in home Tests, both with the ball and the bat, suggested he was the stronger option, even if it did leave England’s seam attack looking a bit one-dimensional with four right-arm bowlers of roughly similar pace.


India had more concerns – not least because they had failed to win at The Oval since 1971, nine visits ago. Ravi Ashwin still couldn’t make the side, but there were two other changes as both Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami were left out due to injury concerns (though one suspects a fully fit Ishant might not have held on to his place). Shardul Thakur was back and Umesh Yadav got his first call-up of the series.


Rohit Sharma and K.L.Rahul opened the batting and, with Jimmy Anderson slightly off-colour for once, Woakes got an early chance and in his first over found Sharma’s edge to dismiss him for 11. Ollie Robinson, whose 23 wickets in his first four Tests were more than any other England bowler at the start of his career during this century, followed it up by trapping Rahul in front after a spell of miserly bowling from both ends. Anderson returned, and this time found the perfect line to Cheteshwar Pujara to take the edge when he was on 4. Virat Kohli and the promoted Ravendra Jadeja saw India to lunch on 54 for three.


Early in the afternoon session, Kohli was dropped by Root, who seemed to react late, but Woakes wasn’t to be denied and soon after Jadeja edged to Root, who made no mistake this time. Ajinkya Rahane was given out LBW but survived on review, as the ball was going just over middle stump by the narrowest margin. But Kohli looked in the mood to make England pay, playing some glorious drives and he reached his fifty off 85 balls. But that was it as Robinson found the faintest edge to the keeper before he added to his score. Ali then took a great diving catch off Craig Overton in the slips to remove Rahane. So at tea, India were in deep trouble at 122 for six.


Rishabh Pant always takes the positive approach, but was lucky to survive an edge to the slips early in the evening session off Woakes. It didn’t matter because he then tried to launch Woakes into the stands only to chip it to mid off to fall for 9. Thakur adopted the same approach, but more successfully, hitting the ball to all parts of the ground. Bairstow dropped a chance down the legside and the fifty partnership with Yadav came up in just 40 balls. England’s good work was in danger of being undone by the Indian tail once more. Thakur hit his third six to bring up his fifty off just 31 balls – the fastest Test half-century in Oval history. Woakes finally removed him for 57. A flying catch in the slips was dropped, but Rory Burns threw down the stumps to run out Bumrah without scoring. Finally, Bairstow took his fourth catch with a superb reflex catch to remove Yadav and India were all out for 191, Woakes finishing with four for 51.


England’s reply got off to a poor start when Burns played on to Jasprit Bumrah for 5 and then Haseeb Mameed played a flamboyant stroke to edge Bumrah to Pant and so Root came in at 6 for two – an all-too-familiar experience. He and Dawid Malan quickly settled into their work, facing some fairly loose bowling. Then, suddenly, just before the close Yadav pitched one up, nipped it back and bowled Root for 21, bringing nightwatchman Overton to the crease, and the day finished with England on 53 for three. A dramatic day, with honours almost even, was somewhat marred by an over rate of just 12.3, which is painfully slow, even with so many wickets falling.


Almost immediately on Day Two, Overton flashed at one and was caught at first slip by Kohli. That brought Pope to the crease on a ground where his first-class average was a touch over 100. Malan, who had been looking good on 31, edged Yadav to Sharma and was out to leave England in trouble at 62 for five. Bairstow narrowly survived an LBW shout third ball, but soon he and Pope began to relieve the pressure with some lovely drives and a flurry of boundaries. The fifty partnership came up in 56 balls. By lunch, England were 139 for five and beginning to regain the initiative.


Early in the afternoon, Bairstow continued his frustrating habit of making a solid start but failing to go on when he was trapped in front by Mohammed Siraj, playing slightly across the line, and was out for 37. Pope reached his fifty in 92 balls, and with Ali took England into the lead just after 3pm. Then, with India beginning to struggle, Ali launched an ambitious drive only to top-edge it to extra cover to fall for 35. England went in to tea on 227 for seven, and looking to take more control of the match.


The evening session began with Woakes taking three fours off Bumrah, before Pope chopped a wide one from Thakur onto his stumps when on 81. Jadeja quickly accounted for Robinson, leaving England on 255 for nine. Woakes seized the moment with just Anderson for company, playing shots all around the ground. He brought up his fifty in just 58 balls, but was then run out trying to keep the strike as England were all out for 290, a lead of 99. India’s openers knew they had a tough task to get through to the close, and Sharma and Rahul fought hard. Sharma was missed at second slip in Anderson’s second over, but otherwise there were relatively few alarms as conditions began to look better for batting. India closed on 43 without loss.


The third day firmly belonged to India. England needed to be patient under overcast conditions, but batting seemed to be getting easier and easier. Sharma and Rahul soon went past their fifty opening partnership. Sharma was dropped again by Burns at the end of the first hour, as England’s woes in the cordon continued. Finally, having had an LBW appeal upheld by umpire Alex Wharf, then overturned on DRS, England got the breakthrough when Anderson induced the finest of edges from Rahul. Wharf turned it down, but the DRS review showed a clear edge and the opener was on his way for 46. By lunch, India had reached 108 for one, a lead of nine.


After lunch, Sharma went to fifty in 145 balls, while the biggest danger to Pujara came when he turned his ankle, but otherwise his timing and placement were superb. England’s bowling looked a bit jaded and one-dimensional, while Ali never quite managed to tie down an end, leaking runs at four an over. When he reached 80, Sharma achieved the landmark of 3000 Test runs, at an excellent average just shy of 47. Sharma and Pujara completed their century partnership off 173 deliveries. Then Sharma launched Ali over long on for six to bring up his maiden overseas century off 204 balls. At tea, it was 199 for one, with India leading by 100 and looking like they were taking firm control of the match.


The evening session began with England having to wait 11 overs for the new ball, by which time Pujara reached his fifty off 103 balls. By the time the 80 overs were completed, India were on 236 for one, and the pair had put on more than 150. Root gave the new ball to Robinson, and his first delivery was a loosener that Sharma spooned up to Woakes at fine leg, falling for a superb 127. Then, in the same over, Pujara got an inside edge which lobbed up from his thigh pad to Ali, and he was out for 61. Suddenly, England (and the crowd) were back in it. But that was the end of the wickets for the day, which was brought to a premature end due to bad light, with India on 270 for three and Kohli and Jadeja looking solid.


Day Four was a lot sunnier, and it looked ideal conditions for the batsmen, so India appeared strong favourites. The half-century partnership came up in 108 balls, but then Jadeja was LBW to Woakes for 17. The out-of-form Rahane survived an LBW shout third ball thanks to DRS, but five balls later there was no reprieve, and one suspects he won’t appear in the final Test: 296 for five. Kohli was looking in supreme control, but he edged Ali to slip to fall for 44. At lunch, it was 329 for six and if England were able to wrap up the rest of the innings quickly to keep the chase to about 275, you felt they might just be favourites – even though the highest successful run chase on the ground was 263 – back in 1902!


In the afternoon, Thakur once again proved a thorn in the side of the England bowlers, keeping Pant company with some fine shots. It took them just 80 balls to bring up the fifty partnership, and then there was a dreadful missed run out which you felt had to be taken. Thakur went to his fifty in 65 balls and soon took the lead past 300. Then came the hundred partnership in 154 balls, but immediately after Root’s own spin bowling accounted for Thakur, on 60. Pant duly completed his fifty off 105 balls before drilling one straight back to Ali. India still weren’t done as the tailenders hit out and at tea it was 445 for eight.


Bumrah fell early on after tea while Yadav played some extravagant shots, ensuring England would need to break the record for their highest-ever run chase (362 for nine on that unforgettable Stokes-inspired day in 2019) if they were to win. India were all out for 466, leaving England to chase 368 for victory. They needed a good start – and they got it from Burns and Hameed. There was a bit of early movement for the pacemen, but it was the spin of Jadeja out of the rough to left-hander Burns that looked to offer the best possibilities for victory. It took them just over 20 overs to complete their fifty partnership, and by the close they had taken the score on to 77 without loss, leaving England with 291 more runs to win. India were firm favourites, but every result was still in play.


Burns and Hameed completed the second century partnership of their brief pairing, and after 124 balls Burns also brought up his fifty. But the very next ball, he edged Thakur to the keeper. It took more than 40 minutes before Jadeja began to bowl, and his loosener allowed Hameed to complete his fifty in 123 balls. Hameed mistimed an ugly stroke to mid on and was dropped on 55 off Jadeja, then Malan was given not out padding up outside off, but DRS showed would have just clipped the top of middle, so he was lucky to survive. England may have lost just one wicket in more than 50 overs, but the momentum seemed to be moving towards India. An unnecessary tight call for a quick single from Hameed resulted in Malan being run out, and that would prove vital. But at lunch, England were 131 for two and the target had now become 237 in 63 overs, meaning a home win looked an increasingly distant prospect, with a draw the most likely outcome.


When play resumed, Jadeja pitched one in the rough outside Hameed’s leg stump, beat the bat and it cannoned into the top of off; out for 63, the victim of a superb delivery. But it was Bumrah who truly transformed things, beating Pope’s defences on 2 and then followed it up with an unplayable Yorker to remove Bairstow for a duck, fourth ball. Ali also fell for nought, fourth ball, pushing a Jadeja delivery into the hands of short leg. England had lost six wickets for 47 runs, and all hope of even drawing the match seemed to have gone in a few overs after lunch. Then came the crucial blow, as Root dragged a ball from Thakur on to his stumps on 36. Overton was dropped in slips, had an LBW decision against him overturned on DRS, but somehow managed to outlast Woakes. Overton found an even more painful way to be bowled, deflecting the ball off his unprotected elbow onto the stumps. Anderson was the final victim, edging the ball to the keeper as England were all out for 210.


Once more, the force and skill of India had overwhelmed England’s resistance. With the final Test due to start on Friday at Old Trafford, England have plenty of questions about their line-up, where they will need to win to square the series. For once, the top of the batting order – Burns, Hameed, Malan and Root – looks secure. Buttler returns to the squad, meaning he, Bairstow and Pope will battle over two spots, unless England risk playing four bowlers. Jack Leach is added to the squad, providing another spin option, but for all his reliability compared to Ali, he doesn’t offer much with the bat. Bringing in Mark Wood for Overton will give Root a genuine pace option, but Anderson and Robinson showed signs of being a bit jaded (it’s hard to imagine Anderson ever again playing all five Tests in a series), and though Woakes played so well, it was his first red-ball game in a year, and recovering will be tough for him too. Given all of that, it seems very unlikely England will risk playing just four bowlers, as the workload needs to be widely shared, so there will be some tough decisions to take when naming the team.