Dpm Bess’ most vital contribution to the English cause in Chennai, undoubtedly, lies in the action to follow on days four and five. But if fortune favoured him on day three, he had earned his slice.
Bat long. Bat hard. Bat the bowlers into submission, or fatigue at the least. Come out with the ball and make it seem as though you were playing on another surface. Make a mockery of the contest.
This has been, without fail, India’s template to home domination in the recent past.
Out of eight Tests at home since the start of 2018, India have won six by an innings – and the other two by 10 wickets and 203 runs, respectively. In six of these eight games, India’s first innings total has exceeded 470; only twice in 16 innings have the opponents managed to cross 300.
That’s the script England were walking into, as they embarked upon the undisputed toughest challenge in modern-day Test cricket.
Three days in, at Chepauk no less – a venue where India haven’t tasted defeat in the 21st century – how the tables have turned!
Of course, you need to only look at India’s two most recent five-day outings to know that a lot can happen over the last 180 overs of a game – but irrespective of where this match goes, or the series, let the enormity of what England have already achieved not be lost.
The last time India conceded more than 578 runs in an innings at home was in November 2011. The last time India bowled more than 190.1 overs in an innings at home was in November 2009. And while it hasn’t happened yet, the last time India scored less than 350 runs in their first batting innings of a home Test was in November 2017.
Will Joe Root’s unit be able to complete the job in the two remaining days – and inflict upon India only their second defeat in their last 35 home Tests?
The key talking points from day three of the first Test between India and England at Chennai:
Dom Bess: Good habits, happy knack
“Is Dom Bess England’s luckiest cricketer? Napoleon would have made him a general.”
These were the words of Simon Wilde, eminent cricket writer and author of England: The Biography, as he watched a spinner with no prior experience of bowling in India go through the hosts’ middle-order at a venue where India averaged 61.30 runs per wicket since 2008.
The observation wasn’t based solely on the events from Saturday.
Bess claimed his second five-for in Tests on the opening morning of the first Test against Sri Lanka at Galle in January – his first day of international cricket in Asia. His figures read 5/30 in 10.1 overs, as the Lankans subsided for 135 after opting to bat. Even more stunningly, Bess’ expected wickets count from the 61 balls he delivered, as per CricViz, was 0.55.
Let’s look at the last three of his four wickets on day three at Chepauk– full-toss, driven hard, caught brilliantly at short cover; full-blooded pull, straight on to the shoulder of short-leg, ricocheting into the hands of short mid-wicket; first miscued attempt at a lofted hit (out of six), straight to deep cover.
But refrain from putting the 23-year-old’s exploits down to the simple intangible of ‘luck’: good fortune, too, is earned, isn’t it?
That labour lay in the tying down of Virat Kohli, who had only taken four runs from 16 Bess deliveries before the one that turned sharper than he imagined – and resulted in the Indian captain’s first dismissal to an off-spinner in a home Test in over three years.
That labour lay in the well thought-out plugging off the leg-side in-field when bowling to Cheteshwar Pujara – he who had so comfortably blunted Nathan Lyon for most of the Australian summer.
That labour lay in the discipline that kept Rishabh Pant down to 17 runs off the 30 balls he faced from Bess – even as he smashed the other spinner, Jack Leach (with a favourable hitting arc, no doubt), for 48 from just 21 balls.
Bess’ most vital contribution to the English cause in Chennai, undoubtedly, lies in the action to follow on days four and five. But if fortune favoured him on day three, he had earned his slice.
Watch out for Archer
That line probably holds true regardless of where he’s bowling, when he’s bowling, what ball he’s bowling with. But as far as opening trysts with Asian Test pitches go, this Chepauk surface, on the evidence of the first two days, was about the least preferred track any genuine fast bowler would want.
Even on day one, there were enough edges that carried nowhere close to the ‘keeper or the slip cordon – enough to warrant Rohit Sharma bringing out a helmet and standing in front of Rishabh Pant at first slip.
Less than 48 hours later, the same Rohit received a ball that surely couldn’t belong to the same game? Sure, the Indian opener wasn’t completely faultless. But Jofra Archer, playing his first Test in the subcontinent, was making the new SG ball talk a lot more than Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah had on Friday.
Which is why, as much as Messrs Bess and Leach may hold the key to a famous English victory, the Archer factor will also be playing on the minds of the Indian batsmen – be it for the second innings, or the second new-ball, which is six overs away.
Rahane’s home discomfort – a trial by spin
It’s a tale as old as his eight-year-old Test career, isn’t it? Ajinkya Rahane, as an anomaly to all conventional conditioning of making hay in familiar climes, doesn’t quite seem to enjoy playing Test cricket at home.
The numbers point in that direction. After 28 Tests, Rahane averages 38.30. Among all Indian batsmen to have faced at least 2,000 balls at home, only six have had a lower average: Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev, Syed Kirmani, R Ashwin, Nayan Mongia and Anil Kumble.
Take his last 20 home Tests into account – since the start of England’s last tour, in November 2016 – and that average falls further, to 32.33.
This, however, isn’t a huge deviation from his overall mark of 35.92 in the same time-frame, which suggests the Indian vice-captain hasn’t been quite at ease in Tests in general over the last four-plus years.
If anything, India’s last home season had displayed signs of course correction. In six innings against South Africa and Bangladesh in late-2019, Rahane had scores of 15, 27*, 59, 115, 86 and 51.
The concern, instead, is more pointed. Since November 2016, 19 out of Rahane’s 27 dismissals in home Tests have come to spin. From Nathan Lyon to Taijul Islam, from Keshav Maharaj to Roston Chase, from Dilruwan Perera to Steve O’Keefe, from Rashid Khan to Zafar Ansari – visiting spinners, of varying type and pedigree, have had the wood over India’s number five.
It’s a worrying reality.
Pujara-Pant: Yin and yang, 3.0 – hopefully, more to follow
The best of both worlds. We saw it at Sydney. Then at Brisbane. And now at Chennai – where, odds are, India would still require one more regaling of this song of fire and ice to come out of choppy waters.
Leave the cricket aside for a minute. In a world so vehemently at odds with the idea of opposing views, how good a balm is this?
Back to the cricket, and it’s been essential to India’s survival – and triumph, too – in their most recent red-ball forays. All told, Pujara and Pant have now batted together eight times in Tests. On five of those occasions, they’ve added at least 50, to boast a healthy partnership average of 66.75.
This is, as poetically pointed out on Twitter, one to Che-Rish!
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Cheteshwar Pujara also surpassed his List A highest score of 158 with this innings of 174.
India will start their Asia Cup campaign against Pakistan on 28 August in Dubai. India will also take on Pakistan in their first match of the T20 World Cup at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground on 23 October.
Rishabh Pant opened twice during India's UK tour in the limited-over matches, and made a strong case for himself at the position despite no prior domestic experience of playing at the slot.