England battle to put an unlikely victory in sight
Hosts inch ahead as Buttler digs in to lead resistance Kohli’s desire means India can yet turn the tables
England’s all-rounders did the donkey work to put their team in a position to win the series against India – although the fourth Test is heading for another tense finish between two flawed but well-matched sides.
England are 260 for eight with a lead of 233 after an engrossing day of Test cricket. The hosts will feel they are in the better position and India have only once before scored more runs to win a Test outside Asia. That was when Sunil Gavaskar made his name in a record run chase in Port of Spain 42 years ago. Virat Kohli has the burning ambition to produce superhuman deeds, plus he will take heart from England’s seamers looking a bit leggy in the first innings and the fact that India have bullied Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali before.
Jos Buttler’s 69 was the cornerstone of the resistance while Ben Stokes clung on to fight for the team as England inched ahead, despite another let- down from their unsettled top order. Sam Curran continued his rise with a controlled 36 as the game drifted away from India in the last session but a wicket with the final ball of the day provided another turn.
It was hard day to score runs for everyone and nobody has struggled more for touch recently than Alastair Cook. It has been his worst summer in Test cricket for eight years with an average of 22.60 and just one score above 50. Even his loyal, long time mentor Graham Gooch, warned last week that he was “flat-lining”.
Scores in this match of 17 and 12 have been compounded by dismissals off poor attacking shots at a time when England have desperately needed his solidity. This time he drove at a tempter outside off stump that KL Rahul juggled, agonisingly for Cook, before holding on.
He has kept his counsel and those close to the England team are not sure of his future intentions. Surely he will not want to linger, trying to convince anyone who will listen that he still has one more fight left in him and it would not be a surprise if he were to announce this week that the Oval Test will be his last. He has performed an Oval rescue act before of course. In 2010 he made a hundred that preserved his place for a winter’s Ashes tour he completely dominated. Then he was young and hungry.
Does he now feel sated by 32 Test hundreds and had a belly full of batting under the microscope? We will know soon enough.
Keaton Jennings should have done enough to ensure he plays at the Oval. His attacking intent against Ravi Ashwin alone was good to see with a winter tour to Sri Lanka looming and there was better intent against the seamers, too, with Jennings batting with the air of a player with nothing to lose rather than gripped by a fear of failure that cost others their place this summer.
The promotion of Moeen to No3 for the first time in his Test career underlined the chaos in England’s batting. Moeen averages 52 at No3 in county cricket but he has never been considered for the job in the Test team because his defence is not sound enough against quality seam bowling.
This felt like a worker bee sacrificing himself for the queen so the captain could bat in his favourite position. It did not work. Moeen lasted only 15 balls and so Root was in early anyway.
Root and Jennings took a while to get going but they started to nose England ahead. Jennings took the lead, reverse-sweeping Ashwin for four and next ball playing an orthodox sweep for another boundary. Root drove Mohammed Shami beautifully down the ground and England were heading to lunch in a position to build their lead in the afternoon sun, but Shami nipped one back in and Jennings could not get his bat down in time. It was plumb lbw and England wasted a review trying to overturn it.
Jonny Bairstow’s mind has been scrambled all week over his role as a specialist batsman and fears he may have lost the gloves for good. He was in the wrong frame of mind to make runs and his shot betrayed that loss of focus. He played a horrible drive to Shami and was bowled first ball for the second time in three innings as momentum shifted again to India. England were four down with only a 65-run lead.
This was Root’s chance to play the captain’s innings England have waited for all year. He was in control as a becalmed Stokes at the other end dug in.
But Stokes called for a poor run to mid-on, where Shami threw down the stumps at the keeper’s end with Root well short of his ground. It was dicey run in one-day cricket let alone a tense Test match but Root appeared to give up too early. A desperate dive might just have saved him but Root was run out for the second time in the series, and the self-inflicted blow left his side teetering with a 95-run lead and only five wickets left.
Stokes was passive again and his strike rate this summer, 37, is lower than even Cook. Credit to Stokes for although out of nick, he has tried to play responsibly in the middle order, grinding down the opposition to make up for the weaknesses further up the chain.
Buttler took the role of leading man, as he did last week in their stand at Trent Bridge. They again nosed England ahead, taking the lead beyond 150 as Ashwin struggled with a hip injury that limited his action and he did not pose the same threat as Moeen 24 hours earlier, denying Kohli his trump card.
His only wicket of the day was Stokes when he edged a yorker-length ball to slip as India refused to give up. Enter Curran, a player blessed with the benefit of youth and so unencumbered by fear. He was again unfazed by the pressure, taking on the attack even after Buttler was dismissed by the second new ball. If he continues this morning, Curran could be the match-winner again.
Breakthrough: England captain Joe Root walks off disconsolately (left) after being run out two short of his fifty; (right) Sam Curran plays through the offside on his way to an unbeaten 37 as England gained the upper hand