SEPTEMBER 7, 2018
Brief Scorecard: England 198 for 7 (Cook 71, Moeen 50, Ishant 3-28, Bumrah 2-41) v India
They were craning their heads, looking at the England dressing room, waiting for a sign. He was due to come out and they wanted to say thank you. Finally, Alastair Cook stepped out into the sunshine and basked in the applause. He kept their company for a good four hours and as usual, while their minds to drifted to more important matters, like the bills that they had left to pay or the date they were planning to impress, he led England to a position of strength with his 57th half-century. The crowd would look up from their phones, see Cook still in the middle and go back to their business.
After tea though, a peaceful day at the Oval turned frenetic. Jasprit Bumrah had Cook dragging on for 71. Three balls later, he bowled a vemomous inswinger that trapped Joe Root lbw for 0 and five balls after that, Ishant Sharma had Jonny Bairstow caught behind with one that held its line just outside off-stump and England were suddenly 134 for 4, from 133 for 1. India’s fast bowlers had been excellent with their discipline. There were a million plays and misses – actually, it was only 74 but Mohammed Shami beat Moeen Ali’s bat four times in a single over. All of that meant there was no let-up in pressure and once they got a wicket, more followed, as is expected of a bowling attack that has such variety.
Danger lurked even as the shadows lengthened at the ground, and the batsmen thought they had done enough to justify their captain’s decision to bat at the toss. That’s a direct result of the threat each of India’s bowlers pose, including Ravindra Jadeja, brought into this match in place of R Ashwin, who is said to have aggravated his hip injury. Jadeja’s accuracy took out Ben Stokes in the 78th over and Ishant broke through from the other end, twice, ending Moeen’s innings at 50 off 170 balls and then rushing Sam Curran back to the pavilion for 0.
The last session of play produced six wickets for 75 runs, lending merit to how well-stocked this Indian attack is. England saw off the skiddy fast bowler who troubles batsmen with his wide-of-the-crease angle and awkward action, but were unprepared for the tall one with the ability to probe away in the off-stump corridor, straightening the ball off the seam. Both of them wouldn’t have been as threatening without their partner kicking everything off after lunch with a special spell. Shami earned 34 edges and plays-and-misses in 22 overs, including 18 from Moeen alone.
The skill of the Indian seamers flipped not one but two big stories on the day. They hit pause on Cook’s party and muted public outrage over Virat Kohli’s team selection. The extra batsman finally came into the XI but it was Hanuma Vihari, a 24-year old debutant, and not Karun Nair, who was left on the bench for a fifth Test in a row. He’ll be ending his tour feeding his team-mates balls in the nets, running drinks out to them and dreaming about that time when he was a triple-hundred scoring Test cricketer.
The think-tank’s choice to go into the game with only four specialist bowlers – Hardik Pandya was dropped – also came under scrutiny in the morning when it seemed like the pitch – despite the grass on it – was rather slow. Cook got into his innings with a rasping cut shot and followed it with a bowler-crippling pull for another four, showing off just how much time he had to play anything pitched short. But the tap on the freebies was closed after lunch and England had to survive on the strength of their will and the merit of their technique.
Cook had fun doing just that. It had been nine innings since his last half-century. But from the moment he, reluctantly, ventured out to a cover drive in the second over of the day, he looked like the old grizzled warrior that put an outrageous price on his wicket. He invited balls on his pads with his leaves outside off and put them away with much glee. He won’t experience such thrills again, not in Test cricket at least, and so it was time to indulge. Even if he didn’t quite feel like it, the people would have willed him on.
Two days ago, he said he was asked to roll down his car window while on the road because a fan wanted to say thank you. Here, at the ground, there were banners proclaiming gratitude for 12 years of service. There were men dressed up as chefs, mimicking the umpire’s signal for boundary every time Cook hit one. London came to watch him. He put on one last show of trademark defiance. But for once in this series, it was the England middle order that came up short against an unrelenting Indian bowling attack.