Of course the problem is that Test cricket is so boring.
It is seriously doubtful that even the head of marketing at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) was thinking along those lines during the extraordinary First Specsaver Test between England and India at Edgbaston. England’s thousandth Test was a classic. Like life itself it had a wondrous tapestry of events and moods: technical supremacy, exquisite beauty, periods of breath-taking action but the odd – not many – longueur, youthful enthusiasm, the sheer nous that only comes with years of experience, occasional embarrassing crassness, and some terrible mistakes. It will live long in the memory. The comparison with a T 20 match – “exciting” at the time but instantly forgettable – is almost too obvious to mention. Anyone with an interest in sport would have been fascinated by the twists and turns of this contest and the personal fortunes and foibles of its participants. Even the “mums and kids”, poor dears – Andrew Strauss’s target audience for the ECB’s moronic new format, ” The Hundred”, due to wreak further havoc to the domestic first-class structure from 2020 – might have just about managed to work out what was going on.
The series has been eagerly anticipated because India are the number one Test nation though their record away from home is patchy (but a lot better than England’s). Since their defeat in Australia in 2014-15 they have played nine series (excluding one-off Tests against Bangladesh and Afghanistan) and won eight of them. But five of those series were at home and two were in Sri Lanka (won by India two-one and three-nil). Another was in the West Indies and let’s face it touring the Caribbean is not quite the ordeal, particularly for batsmen, that it used to be. In most of these series, especially at home, India’s top order have gorged themselves.
The one defeat came in South Africa in January/February 2018. South Africa won the first two games, but India gained a consolation victory at Johannesburg. Only one Indian batsman made a century in the series: no prizes for guessing who. More worryingly only two other batsmen reached fifty in the series – once each for Cheteshwar Pujara and all-rounder Hardik Pandya.
Right from the start the Edgbaston game was intriguing. In only the ninth over of the match Alastair Cook was bowled by a big-spinning off break from Ravichandran Ashwin. A fine partnership between Joe Root (80) and Johnny Bairstow (70) took England to a position – 216 for three – from which they should have stamped real authority on the game. But Root was brilliantly run out by Virat Kohli and then, as so often with England, there was a seemingly inexplicable collapse, as 216 for three became, first thing on Thursday morning, 287 all out.
That second day was a wonderful day of Test cricket. It really did have everything. India’s openers started steadily against James Anderson and Stuart Broad and it was the tyro, 20- year old swing bowler Sam Curran, playing in his second Test, who made the breakthrough, taking three wickets in seven balls to leave India on 76 for three at lunch.
Ben Stokes bowled compellingly after lunch, causing all sorts of problems for the accomplished Ajinkya Rahane. But the real battle was taking place at the other end.
Kohli had arrived in England with perhaps only Kane Williamson as a convincing challenger to the title of best batsman in the world. But when Kohli had last played a Test series in England, in 2014, he had averaged 13 in the five Tests, and was out four times to Anderson. Aided by the lunch break the old maestro now bowled fifteen overs in one spell; it would be interesting to know if he had ever done that before. Kohli looked supremely comfortable against everyone else, but he never looked really comfortable against Anderson. and finally, with the last ball of his fifteenth over, Anderson must have thought he had him. Kohli edged a ball, not for the first time but on this occasion it carried straight into the hands of Dawid Malan at second slip – and out again. Kohli was on 21; the score would have been 100 for six.
Malan must have spent much of the next two days – and nights – thinking about that drop. Bizarrely, Pandya was dropped by Cook off Stokes the very next ball. Once again England had let a wonderful opportunity to dominate the game disappear. Dropping Pandya is one thing; but dropping Kohli….. The master made it count, scoring 149 and taking his side’s total to within 13 of England’s. He put on 57 for the last wicket with Umesh Yadav, who made one. By the end of the day Cook had been bowled for a second time by Ashwin.
When England went into lunch on Saturday on 86 for six, with the top six all gone, there must have been a lot of people who thought there was not a lot of cricket left in the game. Ashwin was thought likely to be the main threat but in fact it was Ishant Sharma who posed most problems, finishing with five for 51. But England were not done yet. Curran seemed to have decided that this test cricket thing was not really as difficult as all that. He came in and just batted sensibly, scoring 63 off 65 balls, with nine fours and two sixes. He got valuable support from Adil Rashid, a controversial pick for new national selector Ed Smith, and Broad. And there was a challenging target, 194.
It was Broad, who had had a quiet game hitherto, who made the initial breakthrough when India set off on their run chase, but all England’s faster bowlers looked challenging, and four of India’s top five were removed inside 22 overs. Then Kohli was joined by wicketkeeper Dinesh Kartik and resistance started to look more serious. Kartik looks a rather skittish cricketer, but when India toured England in 2007 and won the series one-nil, he opened the batting and scored more runs than anyone else, so he should not be underestimated.
Anyway, he and Kohli were still there at close of play – 110 for five, with a tantalising prospect for the fourth day – Saturday – crowd. The general feeling was that England had to break through early. To put it another way, if Kohli survived, India would win.
Kartik fell early to Anderson but Kohli and Pandya gradually settled in. Pandya, a confident striker of the ball, hit Broad for a couple of handsome straight drives. Tension mounted. Kohli reached his half century and then – somehow it had to be him – the irrepressible Stokes struck, Kohli missing a straight one he was trying to force to leg. That made an England victory all but inevitable, and they won by 31 runs.
Stokes will not be available for the second Test at Lord’s. India might want to make at least one change. Even an out of form Pujara would surely be a more convincing number three than K L Rahul, in English conditions.
The game was not entirely perfect. Kohli’s send-off of Root in England’s first innings was boorish and stupid, and not worthy of him. It is the sort of thing that makes neutral observers, watching India play, incline to support the opposition.
But Kohli was gracious in defeat. Above all he signalled, loud and clear, his love of, belief in, and support for Test cricket, as simply the best format.
Let’s hope some of the game’s administrators were listening.
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