FEBRUARY 26, 2021
Axar Patel took 11 wickets in the match BCCI
Brief Scorecard: India 145 (Rohit 66, Root 5-8) and 49 for 0 (Rohit 25*) beat England 112 (Crawley 53, Patel 6-38) and 81 (Patel 5-32) by 10 wickets
England made their lowest Test score in India on the way to a ten-wicket defeat
AHMEDABAD, INDIA – Manic, manic, manic. The speed of the final act of the third Test was, on the one hand, a gross misrepresentation of the extraordinary mayhem that had preceded it. As Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill flogged a dispirited and under-resourced England spin attack to all corners, picking off a paltry target of 49 in 7.4 overs and with ten wickets in hand, it might have appeared to any latecomers that India’s dominance in home-spun conditions had been entirely, and predictably, unchallenged.
But on the other hand, that final flurry was a perfectly crazy denouement to a match that had been accelerating all the way through like a pair of brawlers tumbling down a flight of stairs – a contest wrapped up, with a vast six over wide long-on from Rohit, only minutes after tea on the second day of action, making the shortest completed Test match since 1935, after 17 wickets had tumbled in the first two sessions of the day, and 30 in the first five all told.
In any ordinary contest, any one of the day’s top lines would have sufficed to hold the attention, and lure in the plaudits. There was Joe Root, England’s most likely source of a revival but in his most unlikely guise, claiming the astonishing figures of 5 for 8 in 6.2 overs, the second-most economical five-for by a spinner in Test history, and the first by an England captain since Bob Willis in 1983.
There was R Ashwin, who rumbled through to 400 Test wickets in the course of England’s second-innings subsidence to 81 all out – the fourth Indian to reach the landmark, and the second-quickest of any nationality after Muttiah Muralitharan. And bowling in tandem with him for all but four balls of the innings was Axar Patel – at the opposite end of his career – who was denied a hat-trick by DRS but could still console himself with match figures of 11 for 80, including his third five-for in a row.
Stitch all of those landmarks and stand-out moments together, and the upshot was a contest of blink-and-you-miss-it entertainment. A more manic sequence of events than the most fluctuating IPL clash could ever serve up, and if there will be some inevitable grumblings about the surface on which it all played out, there’s still something captivating about watching your lottery numbers roll in.
What England would have given for another 50 runs in their abject first innings – or for an extra frontline spinner to apply the knowhow required to turn the screw in that harum-scarum fourth innings, when Root’s status as a part-timer was finally exposed by circumstance. Instead, they’ll have to settle for the pyrrhic victory that comes with putting up a fight when most of the world had given them up for dead already. There’s still a series to be squared on this same ground next week, after all.
The day had dawned as it would finish, with England pinned to the ropes – an impression hardly improved when Rohit, as dominant then as he would be at the end, slammed the habitually un-cuttable James Anderson through the covers twice in an over to bring up India’s 100, and reduce what remained of England’s paltry lead to single figures.
But that would prove to be the death of certainty as far as batting would go for the rest of the day – for the rest of the match – as the contest was cranked open like a can of wriggly red-earth-burrowing worms.
Not for the first time in this series, it was the unassuming Jack Leach who scotched all preconceptions. By matching the methods that had already served Patel so well, he scalped both of India’s overnight batsman with balls that skidded on through – Ajinkya Rahane nailed on the back pad attempting to cut, and Rohit down on one knee for a yawning slog-sweep one over later.
The die was cast as far as England were concerned, and into the attack came an even less assuming weapon. Root had claimed 32 wickets in his previous 101 Tests, although his preferred method, of undercutting the ball from round the wicket, with his slightly round-arm action, has rarely failed to be a challenge in the right conditions.
His first delivery, to Rishabh Pant, could not have been more perfectly targeted had it been a T20 match-up. A vicious spitting spinner to the left-hander, luring his ever-aggressive hands into action before cuffing the edge for Ben Foakes to cling onto another effortlessly tough take.
And before he’d even conceded a run, Root had two more – Washington Sundar bowled for a duck by a snorter that gripped and straightened to nail the top of off, and Patel, flinging the bat through the line second-ball, and picking out Dom Sibley at short cover.
India, all of a sudden, had lost five wickets for 11 runs, and now it was a race to the bottom, as Ashwin reprised the loose-limbed bat-flinging that had set up his superb century in the second Test. He died as he had lived, caught off a top-edge at deep square to give Root his fourth, but not before he’d picked off 17 runs that would prove exponentially precious the longer the day wore on.
Ishant Sharma took the same cue, lumping the first six of the match over long-off before Root trapped Jasprit Bumrah in front of leg. Just as England had stumbled from 74 for 2 to 112 all out in their first innings, so India’s own innings had gone the same way – 145 all out, their last eight scalped for 47. A lead of 33 was not neither here nor there … was it?
And yet, if that was a crazy passage of action, we had seen absolutely nothing yet – like an over-hyped hen party at a comedy club, thinking the MC’s warm-up wisecracks were the most side-splitting jokes they’d ever heard. They hadn’t reckoned for Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow against Patel and the new ball. Nobody had, to be frank.
Crawley, England’s one shining light in that abject first innings, faced up to the first ball with confidence seemingly brimming. But the shot he produced was paralysed by uncertainty, as he slid back to another wicket-to-wicket dart, and neither played for the spin nor the one that sped straight on. His middle stump quickly discovered that it had been the latter.
Out came Bairstow, on a pair, and out of practice after his less-than-ideally-timed spell of R&R following a decent Sri Lanka series. His opening gambit was a horrific mow of a sweep shot – the right intent maybe, but clearly the wrong choice on a pitch where even Root has shelved his go-to stroke. Up went the finger as the ball slapped his right hip, and Patel was celebrating a hat-trick, having cleaned up Foakes at the end of the first innings.
However, Bairstow reviewed and somehow, the ball was shown to skidding over middle stump. No matter. Patel simply returned to the top of his mark, and speared another skidder through the widest gate south of Mumbai. England were unequivocally 0 for 2 this time, and even the most masochistic sports fans were pleading for the action to slow down so that they could taste the drama before it was swallowed whole.
For a time therefore, Sibley played within himself – assuming that’s not a tautology. But then, suddenly and without warning, he too planted that front dog for a massive wipe across the line at Ashwin. The shot was arguably the correct one – the ball was outside the line of off so lbw wasn’t on. Unfortunately, this was not one that skidded, it bit violently for Pant to cling onto a blinder behind the stumps.
Sibley thought he hadn’t hit it, but UltraEdge implied otherwise and he had to go. And as Ben Stokes marched out to join Root, England were still 14 runs shy of parity, with no guarantees that an innings defeat wasn’t still on the cards.
Stokes, to his credit, adjusted his approach from the meek surrender that had ended his first-innings effort. With Root watching the ball like a hawk – and surviving a very tight lbw review on 16, after he was deemed to have grazed an inside-edge – Stokes set about disrupting the spinners with his range of aggressive sweeps – conventional and reverse alike. But his nemesis Ashwin wasn’t going to be held back for long, and on 25, another non-spinner skipped into his planted front foot – it was the 11th time Stokes had been dismissed by Ashwin, and it was a body blow for England’s hopes of a 100-plus lead.
One over later, and England’s goose was as good as cooked, as Patel sealed his ten-for with another slider into Root’s knee-roll. As mighty as Ollie Pope may one day prove to be at this level, he completed a Test to forget as Ashwin outfoxed him for the second time in the match, pushing another non-spinner across his bows to pluck the off stump. When Archer lined up a sweep that was too full for the stroke, Ashwin was into the 400-club and India were deep into the tail.
Leach did not stand on ceremony, with a startling six over long-on off Patel, as he and Foakes tried to chisel something defendable. But after each had fallen in quick succession to the main men, Virat Kohli tossed the ball to the hitherto invisible Sundar, who rewarded his skipper’s faith by luring Anderson into a muffed reverse sweep. England were 81 all out, and 193 for the match – their lowest aggregate in a completed Test in India. There could be no coming back from that.
And so it proved. A two-over foray before the dinner break might, with a bit of luck, have ratcheted up the tension, but instead it dissipated before our eyes as Anderson at point fumbled to get Rohit off the mark, before Root speared four wayward byes past even Foakes’ trusty gloves. And with the jeopardy gone, Rohit and Gill were able to finish the match with an insouciant flourish. Next to none of it had made any sense at all.