Ashwin presides over England's latest trial by spin
- Sports, Published on: Friday 18th November 16 - 9:35pm
At every critical juncture of this typically subcontinental Test match, England's cricketers have inadvertently been telegraphing their sense of impending doom. It was visible in Alastair Cook's body language after losing a vital toss; it resurfaced on the first afternoon when Virat Kohli was dropped at fine leg by Adil Rashid, and there were tremors again this morning, when Moeen Ali's offbreaks began to find the purchase necessary to check India's innings before it could run away.
But it wasn't until the second afternoon at Visakhapatnam that their deep-seated pessimism began gushing to the surface like an Andhra Pradesh oil strike. By the close of a gripping and debilitating third session, with India's trio of spinners tormenting both sides of a succession of stick-or-twist blades, the destiny of this contest was all but pre-ordained.
England limped to the close on 103 for 5, in reply to India's 455, having contributed massively to their own downfall with a succession of hare-brained departures, but equally, having had their minds and techniques scrambled by the dripping-tap accuracy of, in particular, the offspinners R Ashwin and debutant Jayant Yadav.
Ravindra Jadeja's left-arm spin played its part as well, darting the ball in flat and fast to challenge the front pad and leave England's batsmen no time to gather their thoughts between deliveries. But it was Ashwin who applied the surgical strikes, his 12 overs yielding 15 runs and two wickets, including the crowning scalp of Joe Root for 53 and the hapless Ben Duckett for 5.
Meanwhile Jayant, shrewdly handed a debut in response to England's selection of a record seven left-handers, showcased a tall and tidy technique, and accounted of one of that number as his maiden Test wicket. Moeen Ali, one of England's four centurions at Rajkot, was struck on the shin as he pressed forward to another wicket-to-wicket delivery, and sent on his way lbw for 1 after Virat Kohli made a correct call for the DRS.
Soon afterwards, Jayant should have had a second when he bounced an offbreak off the top of Ben Stokes' off stump and into the keeper's gloves without dislodging it. It was a memorably bizarre footnote to a fine first day of Test action from the new boy, that had earlier included a key role - once again in tandem with Ashwin - in a 64-run stand for India's eighth wicket, but was perhaps most notable for the athletic slide and throw from deep square leg that ran out Haseeb Hameed for 13 and wrecked what little poise England's innings had managed to generate.
It hadn't looked too promising in the early moments of England's innings either, and Cook in particular had lived dangerously in his 11-ball stay. He all but popped a leading edge back to the bowler in Mohammad Shami's opening over, but could do nothing about the beauty that bowled him in his second. After being lined up by two deliveries that curled away to the slips, Cook was beaten by a sensational nipbacker that smashed the off stump in two as it nipped back through the gate.
But despite such a seismic shock to England's system, there had been a glimmer of hope, in the form of a 47-run stand for the second wicket between Hameed and Root, that England might somehow extract enough runs from a still serviceable wicket to haul themselves close to first-innings parity. Root, in particular, had been responding impressively to the challenge of a skiddy low surface, and at one stage during a probing new-ball spell from India's seamers had advanced on Shami to clip him aggressively through midwicket for four.
But he was entirely culpable in the moment of madness that sold his younger partner down the river. Chivvying for the second run as he clipped Jadeja off the pads, he hurtled halfway down the track only to turn abruptly on his heels as Jayant's throw fizzed in from the deep. Wriddhiman Saha did brilliantly in front of the stumps to gather and flick backwards in one moment, clipping the bails as Hameed tumbled for the crease in vain.
At 51 for 2, the door was ajar and India's spinners did not require a second invitation to bring out the battering ram. Duckett, whose stroke-laden technique had been an asset when counterattacking against Bangladesh, proved as a leaky as a fisherman's net when facing the best spin bowler in the world, and having consistently exposed his stumps in a bid to attack Ashwin out of the rough, it was to nobody's great surprise when they duly were splattered for 5.
Two overs later, and Ashwin had the big one. Root had been playing a blinder in the circumstances, galvanised by his own supreme form and the knowledge of his role in Hameed's demise. But, against Ashwin, even his free-scoring methods had been tempered, until Kohli tempted him fatally by removing his long-on and inviting a hoick over the top. He took the bait but failed to get to the pitch, and Umesh was on hand at long-off to cue India's delirium.
The familiar failings with the bat made England's determined efforts with the ball earlier in the day somewhat redundant. Moeen, who had been underused on the opening day of the match, claimed three quick wickets in the second hour of the morning before Rashid and Stokes mopped up the resistance after lunch.
Ashwin, India's main source of runs on the day, was lucky to benefit from a drop at slip by Stokes when he had made 17, but the unlikely let-off had a spin-off benefit for England. India ran a single as the ball ricocheted off Stokes' knee at slip, and one ball later, Stokes made amends by snaffling a faster, lower edge to his right to see off India's main man, Kohli, for 167 instead.
Kohli's early dismissal enabled England to keep India's innings closer to 450 than 550, but by the close, in spite of a spirited 15-overs of resistance from Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, it was looking like more than enough.
England 103 for 5 (Stokes 12*, Bairstow 12*) trail India 455 (Kohli 167, Pujara 119, Ashwin 58, Moeen 3-98) by 352 runs