Just as it became clear that Donald J. Trump was President Elect of the United States of America, England started as massive underdogs in their Test match against India in Rajkot. It was the least expected political result since the British people voted for Brexit in June, hacking off their noses to show their faces who was the boss.
While the cultural and political significance of a silly bat and ball is considerably less important than the man chosen as the Leader of the Free World, upsets were at the forefront of the minds of those that woke up on a cold November morning at 4 am to watch England bat first in India. Granted, England doing well against India is far less likely to lead to a thermo-nuclear war than a Trump presidency.
So much of the build up for this Test series was dominated by discussions of England’s seeming inability to bat in Indian conditions. The two Tests in Bangladesh saw England struggle to put together partnerships as wickets fell in a horrific clump, just like Donald Trump’s hair (you see what I did there).
Here they were confronted with a decent pitch, something that wasn’t the case in Bangladesh, and also Cook called right at the toss to get first use of it. Winning the toss evens out over the long run, but on a dry pitch that was full of cracks before the game started it could well be vital. While the surface was pretty placid on day one, it won’t be getting any easy as the match progresses.
England began well with 19-year-old debutant, Haseeb Hameed, becoming Alastair Cook’s 10th opening partner since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012. The young man looked calm and at ease as he made his way to 31 before being dismissed LBW by Ravichandran Ashwin. He reviewed but it was out. While he looked pretty secure, he had got bogged down prior to his dismissal, facing 26 balls without scoring before his missed that straight ball. As he becomes more attuned to cricket at this level he will find a way to release the pressure with low risk scoring shots.
That review for his dismissal was not the first DRS decision in which Hameed played a part. 11 overs earlier Cook was adjudged LBW off the bowling of Ravindra Jadeja. Cook asked the teenager if he should review and between them they decided not to. The ball was going a long way down the leg side and Cook would have been saved by DRS. One of the peculiar aspects of the review system is that people find fault with the non-striker who isn’t straight on to the batsman, and the man on strike who has no view at all, for not overturning a poor decision. The mistake is the umpire’s, not of the young kid on debut.
Ben Duckett survived for 17 frenetic balls before being dismissed by a brilliant catch by Ajinkya Rahane off the bowling of Ashwin to the last ball before lunch. He made 13 runs, but never looked set. He, too, needs to find a way to get a start in Test cricket and then to keep it going. He will soon enough, although not today.
And then England had a brilliant partnership that was worth 179 runs as Joe Root and Moeen Ali that took England from 103 for three to 281 for four. Root’s record against India was already phenomenal, averaging over 100 in his six Tests against them before this one, and here he marched to his 11th Test hundred with ease.
There have been questions over Root’s ability to make runs away from England, and going into this Test his record overseas was only very good compared to his record at home which is on par with some of the greats. In 20 away Tests he had scored 1502 runs at an average of 45.51 with two hundreds. At home he has played 28 Tests, scoring 2601 runs at an average of 59.11 with eight tons. For someone of his ridiculous talent those records should be a lot closer together.
He began the process of putting that right on his way to a superb 124 from 180 balls. Despite the brilliant records of Ashwin and Jadeja, Root was never in trouble against them, putting away poor balls and rotating the strike. It was the perfect hundred made in trying circumstances.
Root’s innings ended in somewhat controversial fashion when Umesh Yadav took a caught and bowled and in his hurry to celebrate the wicket, appeared to fumble the ball. In real time and slow motion replays it became clear that he had taken the catch, but as ever with these things there are as many that saw it the other way.
At the other end he was brilliantly supported by Moeen Ali who has become one of the most important members of this England side in the last 12 months. Batting at five he made 99 undefeated runs in this innings, taking his total in 2016 to 796 made at the excellent average of 56.85.
If Moeen can find the consistency to be a solid Test match number five for England, not just in Asia but all around the world, he gives them so many options. If both he and Stokes can perform inside the top six it allows England to pick four front line bowlers and still have six bowling options. That is a dream scenario for a captain to find themselves in.
So often Moeen has made important runs when England were in trouble, but he has the talent to make runs to set up innings, not just resurrect them. This was his highest score outside England and he along with Root have put England in a strong position in the opening exchanges of this helter-skelter series.
England have got day one of this Test spot on, finishing on 311 for four, and they are well placed to push on to a match-defining first innings score that can allow them to be in control of how this match unfolds. Having said that, as we saw in Bangladesh, there is still the chance of an England collapse tomorrow that will leave them having to bowl well to keep themselves in the match.
Dreams of an upset are still ethereal and poorly formed, but they are there at the back of the minds of bleary eyed English cricket fans. Maybe all the pundits and forecasters are wrong about this series as well.