India vs England: Visitors had the upper hand; draw comes a close second to victory
There was not enough time for England to force a result but they had India on the ropes in the final innings of the opening Test in Rajkot.
The first Test between England and India in Rajkot has come to an end, and it will be the visitors that are most pleased with how it went. There was not enough time for them to force a result but they had India on the ropes in the final innings of the Test as the pitch finally started to give something to the bowlers. A draw is a fair result, and one on which England can build. But given another 20 overs, England might have pinched a win.
There is a huge amount of cricket still to take place in this series between England and India. Over the next 37 days there will be another four Tests, with the next match in Visakhapatnam due to begin on Thursday. This cluttered schedule means that starting well was extremely important for England. Any scars inflicted in this opening match in Rajkot would not have healed in less than a week. It will be India that have the evidence of wounds when the next Test starts.
Before this series began there was understandable talk of England losing every game. India have been in superb form at home, beating New Zealand 3-0 last month to make it 12 wins in their last 13 home Tests. England came into this series on the back of a chastening defeat to Bangladesh where their top order had meekly succumb to the turning ball. India were hugely favoured by everyone who was being honest with themselves. Even England’s leading cheerleaders in the media were wary of pumping up their chances.
This result isn’t the best England could have hoped for, that would have been victory in their first match of this series, but this was a close second. A huge amount went right for them. Alastair Cook won the toss. The gamble of giving teenager Haseeb Hameed a debut in such a big match paid off spectacularly. Adil Rashid lived up to his potential with the ball. There was virtually nothing in this pitch for the seamers and that should have had England at a big disadvantage, but the spinners did enough to cover for them.
There were hundreds for Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes in the first innings and another for Alastair Cook in the second as England nullified the threat of Ravichandran Ashwin. Cook not only scored a hundred, but also had his best captaincy performance in quite a while. He read the game well when batting for a declaration that gave England the best chance of a win on this surface, and did a good job marshalling his spinners. Perhaps Cook could have bowled Rashid more in the final hour, but just as the Twitter wagons were circling to criticise this move Zafar Ansari picked up a wicket.
If there had been the time to play this game out to a natural conclusion England would have won. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for broadcasters, timeless Tests are a thing of the past.
This pitch hasn’t helped the match progress, and while it has had some turn it was slow and manageable until very late on day five.. The cricket in this match has been, by and large, entertaining. But that does not mean that this is an ideal pitch for Test cricket. It held together too well after starting off too flat. It is easy to be critical of pitches that produce draws, but that wouldn’t be completely fair in this Rajkot pitch. This has been a decent spectacle for last five days, but a positive result was impossible.
Not that England didn’t make a go at setting this match up. After Hameed and Cook put on a record opening stand for England in India there was clear evidence of attacking intent. Hameed got out playing a shot that was out of character compared to the rest of his innings when he drove hard at a ball from Amit Mishra that was caught by the bowler. Hameed’s 82 is the highest score ever made by a teenager for England in a Test match. In Mishra’s next over Joe Root played an aggressive sweep that he top edged for an easy catch.
Further evidence that England wanted to push for an improbable win was Ben Stokes being promoted up the order to four in an attempt to set up a declaration. This was a refreshing move for two reasons. First, this was a departure from the safety first approach that has been so roundly criticised under Cook’s captaincy. Second, as much as Ben Duckett is capable of scoring quickly, getting a 21-year-old in his third Test to put his wicket on the line for his team is a lot to ask. Cook departed for an excellent 130 going for a six and immediately declared when he was out.
That declaration was welcomed by nearly everyone; a real rarity. It is a universal truth that all former professionals would have declared much earlier than current captains. As soon as they stop playing they are all for the dangling of metaphorical carrots. Spectators are no different, they want teams to take a risk. Here Cook did what he could with the time he had left. Six Indian wickets made the last innings exciting viewing, but finding all 10 in the 49 overs that England had available proved beyond England.
England had to factor in that this pitch still had runs in it and India have a fearsome top six. Having battled this hard for this long it would be madness to give India a chance in the first of five matches. Cook made the game safe and then he tried to win it. That was fair enough.
The doom and gloom merchants that were writing off England’s hopes, myself included, will be a lot quieter after this match. During this Test England have had batting, bowling and captaincy that they can be proud of. There are tougher challenges to come, especially later this week in Visakhapatnam where the surface has a reputation as one that offers turn. But as England reflect on this match they will feel they had the best of it.
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