The penultimate day of the first Test between India and England didn't exactly set the pulse racing, and as the England openers, Alastair Cook and Haseeb Hamid, steered their side to relative safety by Stumps, one felt that barring the most remarkable of turnarounds on the last day, the match would end in a draw.
England had the momentum going into Day four, having got two wickets in the last two overs the previous day, and their best chance of climbing into the driver's seat lay in getting Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane early. And that's what they did, getting both batsmen in the pre-lunch session itself. Rahane was cleaned up by left-arm spinner Zafar Ansari, while Kohli fell shortly after.
When Kohli went, India were 361/6, still 176 runs behind, and all their specialist batsmen were back in the pavilion. England sniffed a real opening. But then Ravichandran Ashwin and wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha came together, as they have done earlier, and ensured that India conceded a lead of no more than 50 runs.
India now had the momentum and hoped that their ace spinners Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra would make life difficult for the England batsmen on a tiring wicket, but Cook and Hamid shut the Indians out, putting up an unbroken stand of 114 and put paid to India's hopes. Indeed it has been a feature of this match that whenever one team has looked like gaining the upper hand, the other has come back with a strong counter. That being the case, sharing the honours would perhaps be a fair result.
The first thing that England need to do on the final day is to make the match safe. Therefore, they would not only be looking to safeguard their wickets, so that they are not bowled out, they would also need to time their declaration judiciously. The England brains would need to decide what constitutes a safe score, and how many overs they are ready to allow India in their second innings.
If England are really keen to force a win, they would have to score quickly and give India a target of say 300 runs in about 60 overs. Any target bigger than that and in lesser number of overs would see India pulling the shutters down. Such adventurousness by England would make for a really exciting finish, but in order to give India such a tempting target, England would have to score at a rate of 4.5 runs for 30 overs. That would be quite risky on a fifth day pitch against Ashwin and Co and in the bid to force the pace, England could suddenly find themselves 150 all out and staring defeat in the face.
Cook would be mindful of his team's abject collapse in the second Test against Bangladesh only last month, in which they lost 10 wickets for 64 runs in one single session to lose by 108 runs. He will also be aware that India had chased down close to 400 runs in little over a day at Chennai in 2008.
So England should look to first protect their castle on the fifth day, and if possible, bat for the greater part of the day. England spinner Adil Rashid said they would assess the situation at Lunch and might push for a win if they were in a position of strength. However, the England team management should do well to remember that discretion is the better part of valour and one rash decision can undo all the good work that they have done in this match.
This is just the first match of a long series and clever strategy demands that one should be ready to play out a game of attrition, or even retreat temporarily keeping the larger objective in mind. And the larger objective for England would be to win the series in India's own backyard for the second consecutive time.
So England should count the positives that they have had in this match – Joe Root and debutant Haseeb Hamid's batting, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali's all-round show, and Adil Rashid's bowling. These would be valuable resources to draw from as the series starts to heat up. Going one down would hand the advantage firmly to India going into the second Test at Visakhapatnam in a few days' time. England must realise that it has everything to lose, especially the confidence that they have gained with their strong performance in this Test so far. Hence, the best course of action for Cook and his team on day five at Rajkot: safety first.