England’s brilliant start to this tough tour of India continued on the second day in Rajkot. Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes scored centuries as England piled on 537 before the hosts reached 63 for no loss at the close. If you had asked the England team to visualise the perfect start to this five-Test tour, they would have described their first innings. Starting well is so important, and England have been sprinting from the word go.
It is amazing how often in Test cricket that things start going wrong for one team and right for another, and it keeps going in that direction. There is talk of "momentum", whatever that means. It could just be another example of us seeing what we want to see — the ability of the human brain to fall victim to confirmation bias is remarkable. But on day two of the second Test, everything that could go right for England while they were batting, did while India were on the receiving end of a catalogue of misfortunes.
Having dropped three catches on day one, India managed to put down Ben Stokes twice in the space of two overs. The culprit both times was Wriddhiman Saha, the Indian wicket-keeper dropping one tough chance and one very easy one off the bowling of Umesh Yadav. Stokes was on 60 and 61 at the time, he went on to make 128.
To categorise England’s batting efforts as lucky would be unfair; yes, they got some good fortune but they put India under pressure to earn it. Moeen Ali took just three balls to move from his overnight score of 99 not out to his fourth Test hundred, and this was the best of them. Fitting into the order at number five to give this team balance, Moeen’s batting in this series could be as important as his bowling. With inexperienced youngsters in Ben Duckett and Haseeb Hameed above him in the order, the pressure has never been greater on Moeen as a Test batsman.
Moeen thrived under that pressure in this innings, and looked set for a really big score before he fell victim to a brain-fart. A ball from Mohammad Shami was outside the off stump from around the wicket and ducking in towards the stumps. Inexplicably, Moeen left it alone and it smashed into his off pole. In Moeen’s defence, there was a touch of reverse swing, but for someone who had batted so well for so long, it was a massive misjudgement.
Stokes’s century was vital for his team, but not a classic. Had he fallen after Moeen departed, it could have seen England stumble from an excellent position. He had batted well, albeit with those two let offs in the 60s, until he reached 90 not out. He wasn’t at his fluent best but he looked calm and in control. From there on, his innings took on a frenetic look as he scrambled singles that weren’t singles and skied the ball three times before he reached his hundred. The ball always landed safe, and the fielders didn’t hit the stumps, but Stokes was giving India the opportunity to dismiss him.
India had not conceded more than 300 at home in Test cricket since Australia managed 408 on their tour in March 2013, and no visiting team had passed 500 since England’s last visit in late 2012. During the first session, England scored 139 runs at well over four runs an over, eventually grinding their way past 500 in the second session of day two. The reason that they made it that far so quickly is because of Stokes.
Once again, Jonny Bairstow provided some lower order impetus, making a brisk 46 before he flapped at a very wide ball from Mohammad Shami and Saha finally took a catch. But it was Stokes that was the star. His was the third hundred of the innings — the first time England have had three individual hundreds in an innings since Cardiff, 2011 against Sri Lanka, and just the second time they have managed it in Asia. The fact that the first was 55 years ago, and the men scoring those hundreds including Ken Barrington and Ted Dexter, shows what a rare achievement this is for an England team in the sub-continent.
England’s long batting lineup helped them to that big total as they had half-century stands for the sixth and the ninth wicket. Zafar Ansari was batting at 10 in this lineup, but he is a top order batsman with a proven record of success in the County Championship. He has a reputation as a bit of a blocker, and his first-class career strike rate of 36.77 is testament to that. He saw Stokes to his hundred and England past 500 with a patient 32 from 83 balls.
Stokes eventually fell to Yadav, feathering a legside glance that was well caught by Saha, just 67 runs after that same combination should have dismissed him. It was unfortunate for England that Stokes fell when he did; they would have been thinking of giving him full license for half an hour after tea. But they would have few complaints with the total that they reached.
A draw is still the likeliest result, but an England win is second favourite. It is difficult to imagine England losing this Test from here, in fact there have been only three instances where a team has scored this many runs or more and lost in Test history.
England’s bowling efforts soon took on the tactics that will become ubiquitous in this series. They were in a holding pattern to see how soon they could get the ball to reverse swing with Joe Root furiously shining it after every delivery. There was hints of the ball going the other way from the 15th over, but Gautam Gambhir and Murali Vijay coped with it well as they both finished not out at the end of the day.
This was England’s day, but India are going to make them work for wickets. Along with reverse swing, the odd ball bounced and turned, but this is still a very good batting surface. 20 wickets for England seems a long way off, but so did an innings of 500 before this match started. You never know.