England show spirit but Kohli and Ashwin keep India in command
- Sports, Published on: Saturday 19th November 16 - 8:17pm
Three days into Visakhapatnam's maiden Test match, the prospects of England emerging from this contest with anything less than a hefty defeat remain no less bleak than they had appeared at the height of their top-order implosion on the second afternoon.
However, this was a day on which their hopes of a fightback in the remaining three fixtures were exponentially boosted, thanks to a feisty series of performances with bat and ball that required India's champion bowler and batsman, R Ashwin and Virat Kohli, to summon their very best efforts in order maintain their side's dominance.
The tone for England's day was set by a spirited stand of 110 between their overnight pair of Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, but their fate was eventually sealed by the wiles of Ashwin, who claimed his 22nd five-wicket haul but first against England, to secure India a priceless first-innings lead of 200.
Then, after India had decided not to enforce the follow-on, Kohli reached the close on 56 not out, another imperious display to follow on from his first-innings 167, and one in which he was obliged to overcome an exemplary display of incision and experience from England's senior bowlers, Stuart Broad and James Anderson, whose combined figures to date are 3 for 22 in 14 overs.
India's overall lead by stumps was an imposing 298, and on a surface now offering sharp turn to the spinners and clear signs of uneven bounce, mere survival will be a challenge beyond anything that England have yet encountered on this trip. Nevertheless, given the naïve hour's batting that had condemned them on the second afternoon, this was a response from which is no platitude to admit that they will "take the positives".
The general assumption before the start of play was that England would continue to stumble against India's spin-led attack, and Bairstow's alarming arrival on the field of play merely sharpened those thoughts. Jogging out to the middle to resume his innings on 12 not out, Bairstow lost his footing as he crossed the boundary line and had to hobble back to the dressing-room for treatment after rolling his ankle.
He showed no ill-effects however, turning quickly for two runs in Umesh Yadav's first over of the day to open his account for the day, and from that moment on, England's sixth-wicket pairing continued in the same prolific vein that they have displayed all year. Between them, they have now made 772 runs in seven stands in 2016, the most by any batting pair.
India stuck doggedly to their guns throughout a fallow first hour - arguably too doggedly, with Ashwin initially stymied in a nine-over spell that yielded an early wasted review for lbw and one half-chance for a stumping off Stokes. However, there was little of the threat and penetration that he had displayed on the second evening.
That, in part, was down to the quality of England's batting. With Bairstow working the singles while Stokes interspersed his hugely improved defensive technique with an assassin's eye for anything remotely loose, the pair had come within ten minutes of batting clean through the morning session when Umesh produced a beauty, a fast inswinging yorker that crashed into Bairstow's stumps via the base of his pad.
It was a body blow to England's hopes of approaching parity but, when Kohli opted to take the second new ball soon after the interval, Stokes and Adil Rashid were ready to take full advantage with an enterprising counterattack.
The hardness of the new ball suited Stokes' methods just fine, as he clipped Mohammad Shami's second ball off the pads through square leg, before rifling a ferocious pull through midwicket. At the other end, Rashid snaffled three fours in a single over from Umesh, the best of them a scorching cover drive that left Kohli at slip spitting with rage.
Sure enough, his seamers were soon banished and Kohli instead threw the ball back to his senior spinners, who responded with the day's most vital breakthrough. Propping forward to the extra bounce of Ashwin, Stokes was given out lbw by umpire Kumar Dharmasena for 70, even though replays implied that he had grazed an inside edge. No matter - the ball had also deflected into the hands of silly point, so the verdict was correct even if the mode of dismissal was moot.
Zafar Ansari did his best to support Rashid, who was accumulating fluently at the other end, but having flicked a well-timed four through midwicket off Ashwin, he was pinned on the back leg as he played round a full ball from Ravi Jadeja, and burned up England's last review with one of the more futile attempts at a reprieve since the last days of Shane Watson.
Broad might have wished he hadn't - his subsequent lbw against Ashwin looked distinctly leg-sided but England had no more recourse to the third umpire. One ball later, however, Anderson had no such doubts as he was nailed plumb in front of middle on the back foot.
England's tail had once again been docked cheaply - the last four wickets had fallen for 30 in 12.2 overs. But, if there had been any suspicion that England were about to surrender the contest and conserve their energy for next week's third Test in Mohali, then Broad confounded that by bounding in with the new ball in spite of the fact that he was still awaiting the results of a scan on his injured right foot. At the close of play, it was confirmed that he had strained a tendon and, though he will continue to be monitored for the rest of the match, he will be fit to continue.
After back-to-back maidens before tea, Broad resumed with the sort of rhythm and bounce through his action that brought images of Trent Bridge 2015 and Johannesburg 2016 swimming into the mind's eye.
He grabbed two wickets in 25 balls before conceding a single run - both of them overturned on review after initially being given not out by Rod Tucker. Murali Vijay inside-edged a nipbacker onto his thigh, for Joe Root to snaffle with a dive in the slips, before KL Rahul feathered the thinnest of tickles through to the keeper. It was so thin, in fact, that no-one behind the bat was sure there'd been an edge, but Broad was convinced, and so too, crucially, was Haseeb Hameed at short leg. His vigorous insistence was enough to persuade Alastair Cook to take a look - something for Kohli and India to consider as they come to terms with the nuances of DRS usage.
So out came Kohli with India in a bit of bother at 16 for 2. But perhaps the single most telling measure of his class was his response to Broad with his tail up. Where none of his team-mates had been able to get the ball off the square in his spell, Kohli helped himself to six runs from the first five balls he faced, a flick off the pads for two and a filleted four through the covers.
After six overs of Broad, the return of Anderson offered a subtly different challenge, and Kohli's fellow first-innings centurion, Cheteshwar Pujara, was not equal to it on this occasion. After being pushed back onto his stumps by a sharp bouncer, Anderson followed up with an offcutter to open his gate, before completing his three-card trick with a pummelling nipbacker that burst into the top of Pujara's off stump
Ajinkya Rahane, on 2, was lucky to survive an edge off Rashid that deflected to safety off Bairstow's knee, when Stokes would have been lurking at slip to pounce. But he endured to the close, on 22 not out, a distant second fiddle to the majestic Kohli, who brought up his second half-century of the match from 63 balls. He was playing on a different surface from the rest of the players on display. England, for all their efforts, are unlikely to be allowed to share his private net.