For two months the narrative that England would dominate India in the pink-ball Test was being pushed, but well, it took the visitors all of two hours to debunk the same. In what was a horror evening at the Narendra Modi Stadium, England all but batted themselves out of WTC Final contention.
Axar Patel + Turning tracks? Erm...Good luck, visiting sides
It could very well have been possible that, until morning today, the English batsmen might have had nightmares of Axar Patel’s face, in particular his mustache and sunglasses. On a sandpit in Chennai, the left-armer, on debut, humiliated them, almost akin to how this Turkish Ice cream man treats his customers. That was a week ago, though, and the Ahmedabad wicket had nowhere as many demons as the Chepauk wicket, so heading into Day 1, the visiting batsmen thought they could start afresh versus the hometown lad.
Pfffffft, how wrong they were.
On his very first-ball, Axar trapped ‘subcontinent specialist’ Jonny Bairstow plumb in front with his stock ball; i.e, the one which goes with the arm. Remarkably though, that first ball was one of his more unimpressive deliveries in the first session. For Axar’s first 12 overs in the day - which yielded 3 wickets - were a masterclass on how to play hob with the mind of the batsman on a turning wicket.
It was the kind of spell which made you go, “Heck, how the hell is anyone supposed to survive against this guy?”. Metronomically, he landed the ball precisely in the same area over and over again, but it was with his natural variation that he planted doubts in the mind of the batsmen. On most occasions he made the ball go with the arm, but, equally, at the same time, also extracted sharp turn that left the batsmen bamboozled. From Crawley till Foakes, no English batsman managed to read him and adhered to a ‘hail mary’ approach, hoping to ‘somehow’ not get a ball with their name written on it.
Early days, but if Axar can indeed keep this up, he would soon transform into India’s biggest weapon on any track that resembles a ‘turner’ - yes, even more than both Ashwin and Jadeja.
England’s approach was……. Puzzling?
Okay, let’s admit it: this is not how we envisaged Day 1 of the pink-ball Test to be. Even after Chennai, none of us thought England had it in them to get bowled out for 112, that too after winning the toss. Certainly, no sane soul at least believed that in 48.4 overs, England would lose 9 wickets to spin with the pink-ball. But they did. It is what it is.
However, more than the actual score, though, it is how they approached playing spin - for the second Test running- that beggared belief. For the intent to score against the slower bowlers was non-existent. That Axar and Ashwin were near to flawless cannot be denied, but the English batsmen simply let the duo dictate terms.
Between them, Root, Crawley, Bairstow, Stokes, and Pope struck just five boundaries, and only one among the five - Stokes going over the head of Ashwin - was initiated by the batsman. At no point did the English middle-order try to unsettle the Indian spinners - granted it’s not easy - and this, in turn, not only made it easy for both Ashwin and Axar but also ensured that the scoreboard remained static.
The absurdity of this ‘no intent' approach was, in fact, embodied by Ben Foakes who, despite batting with the tail, was content to just survive. In his 58-ball stay, Foakes played no attacking strokes versus the slower bowlers and seemed like he was more than happy to concede defeat, almost waiting for the inevitable ball with his name written on it.
One would have thought Moeen Ali’s onslaught late in the Chennai Test would have forced England to rethink their strategy versus spin, but, as we learned today, they still have plenty of introspection to do - not just with regards to their technique, but also their approach.
England pay the price for stubborn team selection
In many ways, you wonder if it was that moment when Axar Patel turned a regulation stock delivery for 9 degrees, the entire English management knew and realized they’d messed up. Giving in to the common, cliched narrative that pink ball Tests are meant for the quicker bowlers, the visitors stacked the team with three pacers, yet it took India less than 10 overs to expose the flaw in England’s selection strategy.
Yes, there was significant movement on offer with the new ball in both innings and yes, it was the ball that did not turn which ended up undoing almost the entire English lineup. But on a dry wicket which had almost all grass shaved off, it was always going to be the spinners who were going to play a significant role. Unfortunately for England, they only had one. Or, rather, they only selected one.
And though the lone spinner, Jack Leach, did an exceptional job - removing Pujara and Kohli while creating at least a handful of chances - lack of opportunities created by the pacers from the other end - there was nothing for the seamers post the 15-over mark - meant that England were never really able to put the Indian batsmen under constant and consistent pressure like their counterparts did.
From all the pre-match talk the preceded the game - not least Stokes talking about the England seamers ‘licking their lips to bowl with the pink ball - one does get a feel that England turned a blind eye to the actual conditions on offer and let their heart dictate matters.