Much of the build up to this Test has been dominated by the importance of winning the toss and getting first use of a Mohali pitch that was unusually dry. There was a huge amount of time dedicated to staring at the 22 yards of mud and grass that was in the middle of the IS Bindra Stadium. According to reports in one newspaper the English media had “invaded” the pitch to the annoyance of the deputy groundsman, Rakesh Kumar.
Virat Kohli has an unerring ability to win tosses, he had won 10 of his last 11 before this match, but Alastair Cook called right and England chose to bat. It was a massive boost for them. If they are going to push India close in this series, as they did in Rajkot, they need to make big runs in the first innings. If you fail to do that in India you are chasing the hosts like a commuter running after the bus they just missed.
It took the seven balls after the first drinks break for England to lose the advantage they had gained when Cook had called “heads” at 9 AM on Saturday morning. England had already lost Haseeb Hameed to a ball from Umesh Yadav that lifted off a good length and hit his gloves to give Anjikya Rahane a simple catch in the gully.
After the drinks interval, England lost Joe Root and Cook to the first ball of the first two overs after the break, both to poor shots. Root attempted a paddle around the corner to a ball from Jayant Yadav. It was neither an attacking shot nor a defensive one and Root was gone LBW. On the first ball of the next over Cook played a cut shot to a ball that was too close for him to pull it off, and he was caught by the keeper off the bowling of Ravichandran Ashwin.
That left England 51 for three with both openers and their best batsmen gone after an hour of cricket. This was profligacy of the highest order, and both Cook and Root are too important to this side to play such poor shots in close succession. Batsmen make mistakes, but losing the two pillars on which a truly dominate position could be built was a gut punch for England. It is no coincidence that England’s good showing in the first Test featured hundreds from both Root and Cook.
Moeen Ali played an equally poor shot when he top edged a hook off a ball from Mohammad Shami that was caught on the boundary to leave England 87 for four and in danger of losing this match in the first session.
There was a recovery of sorts between Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes, the most successful partnership in Test cricket in 2016. In eight innings batting together, they have put on 829 runs. On Saturday in Mohali they managed 57 runs between them, with both men looking untroubled for the most part. The odd ball turned and there was some reverse swing but there is no reason for England to have struggled as they did, other than them playing some rank shots and making poor decisions.
Stokes was the next man guilty of just that when he left his crease to attack a ball from Ravindra Jadeja. The bowler saw him coming and fired it through quicker. Some excellent work from Parthiv Patel behind the stumps brought about a stumping. England had lost half of their side for just 144 runs. That, in the simplest of terms, is not good enough. India are a better team in these conditions, and there is no shame in losing to them, but to be this much a part of your own downfall will quite rightly generate frustration in this top order.
And it could have been worse. India’s fielding was below par as they shelled two chances off Cook and two off Bairstow. England could have been shot out for 150 on a pitch were the par score could well be three times that amount.
Thankfully for the visitors, they have Bairstow. He is the leading run scorer in Tests in 2016 and is racing away from those close to him. Having moved up from seven to bat at five to make room for Jos Buttler, Bairstow was once again the shining light as England’s top order faded into darkness. Buttler batted well before he drove uppishly to be caught at extra cover, but it was Bairstow that saved England from complete embarrassment.
When Buttler was left out of the Test side in late 2015, after a string of low scores against Pakistan in the UAE, it was Bairstow that replaced him as wicket-keeper. Many were worried about Bairstow filling Buttler’s shoes, but the relative standing of the two men was clear to see as they batted together. Buttler was feeling his way in unfamiliar conditions. Bairstow looked completely at home.
Not that Buttler did badly. His 43 was made in a partnership with Bairstow that was worth 69 runs. He looked well set to go on and make his first half-century in Tests since May 2015 before that loose drive brought about his end.
It was Bairstow that saved England’s blushes, although this match may already be gone. He reached 89 before an excellent ball from Jayant dismissed him LBW. He will be devastated that he missed out on a hundred and didn’t make the close of play, but he was England’s star once again.
With Bairstow gone England’s chances of making 400 disappeared. They bat a long way down, but England threw away a golden opportunity to set the pace in this game with some lackadaisical batting in the morning session. Time will tell if they can find a way to recover from it.