After a Test in Rajkot that confounded expectations, with India underperforming and England overachieving, the type of contest that many had been predicting began to unfold in Visakhapatnam. England finished the second day five wickets down and still trailing by 352 runs.
India began the day in an incredibly strong position. Virat Kohli was looking imperious on 151 not out and he was batting with Ravichandran Ashwin, who is India’s fourth highest run scorer in Test cricket in 2016. Starting the day at 317 for four, India were well placed to get to 500 and beyond and leave England chasing this match with less success than a groundsman chasing a dog around the Vizag outfield wearing one shoe.
As it was, England managed to restrict India to 455, still a daunting total with the prospect of having to get close to their score and then bat last on a surface that is showing signs of deterioration. As they stumbled their way to 103 for five by the close, their hopes in this Test were already forlorn and the Indian total looked massive.
The main reason for England still having a sniff at the end of the Indian innings was Moeen Ali, who claimed three quick wickets to remove Kohli, Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja to see India go from 351 for four to 363 for seven. The issue was that the way England batted in the afternoon did not match the way they bowled in the morning.
Moeen was once again the English spinner most likely to take wickets. The protestations of those County Cricket watchers who thought that he wasn’t England’s best slow bowling option are even more ridiculous now than they were at the time.
Moeen claimed his 25th Test wicket against India, by far his best return against any team. His career figures overall might not be the stuff that draws your eye to the page, but he has become very important to this team. It is Moeen that gives this team the balance that allows them six bowling options.
The sixth of those bowling options is Zafar Ansari, who was struggling with an upset stomach and did not bowl a ball on Friday. Worryingly for Ansari, he wasn’t really missed. It was odd that Cook bowled Ansari ahead of Moeen on Thursday, and perhaps telling that he did not throw him the ball on Friday even when he was on the field.
The danger with picking a player that is still a work in progress is they are having to learn while playing against the best players in the world. England clearly want to have three different kinds of spinners in their attack, but Ansari is Surrey’s second choice spinner. Gareth Batty, the first choice for the same county, is carrying drinks. It would be ridiculous to write off Ansari as a Test prospect this early into his international career, but he has a lot to do to be a consistent threat at this level.
India could well have been all out for under 400 had it had not been for Ashwin, who is now a genuine all-rounder, while also being the highest ranked Test bowler in the world. He made 58, but he should have been dismissed on 17 when India had 350 on the board. Moeen got an outside edge that presented Ben Stokes with an easy chance at first slip. It was straightforward for a normal human; for Stokes, who has shown he is capable of fielding that makes you think he may be extraterrestrial, it was a shocking drop. The importance of this missed opportunity was lost with Moeen dismissing Kohli with the very next ball, a much more prized wicket, but giving Ashwin a life was very costly.
England put down Kohli on Day 1 when he was on 56, he went on to make another 111 runs. The chance that was not taken off Ashwin saw him score a further 41 runs. Just adding up those runs is obviously an over-simplistic approach to working out how much they cost England, but giving Indian batsmen second lives on these surfaces is not something they can afford to do.
While it could have been more, 455 was still a long way away for England, and it looked even further away on the horizon when Alastair Cook was dismissed by Mohammad Shami for just two. Shami set the England captain up perfectly, bowling two balls that moved away before bringing one back in to Cook that snapped his off stump in two.
There has been lots of talk of 19-year-old Haseeb Hameed being the “Baby Boycott”, but that isn’t really the case. He is just a watchful player still learning his game. Here he went into his shell when Cook was dismissed, but he showed in Rajkot that he can play attacking shots. The only moment in his Test career so far where he has been just like Geoffrey Boycott was when a terrible mix up with Joe Root saw him run out for 13 from 50 balls.
That brought Ben Duckett to the crease and he was given a torrid time by Ashwin. Two of the five runs he made in this innings came from the fourth ball he faced. He propped forward with an angled bat, inside edged the ball from Ashwin on to his pads and the ball ballooned over the head of the wicketkeeper.
Things did not really improve from there. It is very obvious that Duckett has a technical issue that leaves his stumps exposed when playing defensively to the spinner, and Ashwin is more than good enough to exploit it. There was some evidence of Duckett trying to get to the offside when defending, but eventually Ashwin found a way through to bowl him. Duckett faced 17 balls from Ashwin and his only runs against him came from that inside edge that could have got him out. It was ugly.
From there the Indian spinners were examining the England middle order’s technique and temperament. Both were found wanting. Joe Root tried to hit Ashwin over the top and was caught in the deep for 53. Root was the only England batsman that looked comfortable before a shot that was an aberration. With him gone, things looked bleak.
The ball was keeping low, it was turning sharply and England were hunkering down and looking to save a match that they would have felt they were still in when India’s last wicket fell. When Moeen went LBW to Jayant Yadav for his maiden Test wicket, England were in tatters at 80 for five. It could have been 87 for six when a ball from Jayant hit the top of Ben Stokes’ stumps only for the bails to stay put.
Stokes and Jonny Bairstow were at the crease at the close. For England to have any chance of avoiding a chastening defeat in this match, they need both of them to go on to make hundreds.