A couple of weeks ago it appeared unlikely Stuart Broad would make it through this series and until a few days ago it was by no means certain that James Anderson would be available, either. As it was, the pair combined to take nine wickets – Broad the bulk of them with 6 for 25 – as India were removed for 152 inside two sessions at Old Trafford and by the close England were strongly placed only 39 runs behind to suggest a significant swing in the series.
Within six overs India were in tatters at 8 for 4; three of the top four having collected ducks, including the struggling Virat Kohli who fell second ball to his nemesis Anderson. From the rubble of the first half an hour, their final total was something of a recovery. MS Dhoni, back at No. 6 after another reshuffle of the batting order, played excellently for his 71 but Broad, who according to reports will have knee surgery after the series, cleaned up the lower order.
The six ducks in India’s innings equalled the world record as, for the first time this season, England managed to exploit what could be termed ‘English’ conditions although they were by no means frightful. It was certainly the quickest pitch seen so far but, by and large, England found the correct, full length which found the edges which they had failed to do at Headingley against Sri Lanka and Lord’s in this series.
England did not have it all their own way in reply, certainly against the new ball as Sam Robson and Alastair Cook departed cheaply to leave them 36 for 2. However, on a gloriously sunny evening Ian Bell, after wild pull first ball, clicked into gear with a string of boundaries which included advancing down to loft R Ashwin for a straight six.
Gary Ballance continued his fine form and the third-wicket pair looked set to see out the day but Ballance was trapped lbw by the impressive Varun Aaron, playing his second Test and first since November 2011, from around the wicket in what proved the final over the day. It should be noted that eight overs were lost.
There was a stroke – or should that be a flip – of fortune for England before a ball was bowled. Cook lost the toss and Dhoni was happy to bat first; it has been the route taken by every Test captain at this ground since Graham Gooch against Australia in 1993. Cook admitted he would have batted, but as he said that he glanced skywards at the clouds, which had been heavy enough to delay the start by half an hour with drizzle, and pondered what could be on offer.
Stood at first slip, Cook would immediately have been delighted by what he watched. A manic 13-ball period began when Broad made the opening incision in the fourth over when Gautam Gambhir, playing his first Test since December 2012 in place of Shikhar Dhawan, was squared up in a manner similar to the 2011 tour and edged to gully.
Anderson had already found his groove and now started to find the edges. M Vijay, the pillar of India’s batting in the series, nicked a perfect outswinger to Cook at first slip and two deliveries later there was a near replay when Kohli moved across his crease and felt for another delivery which curved away. It was one of those spells where another wicket, if not more, felt inevitable and Dhoni’s uncertain technique was given a working over by Anderson.
There has been some criticism this season of the length of spells Anderson has been asked to bowl, but the nine-over opening burst today was fully understandable in the circumstances. It was a reminder, not that any was needed, of the significance of the not-guilty verdict.
The next stage of the match came when Cook changed the bowling – would Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan maintain the stranglehold? Woakes could have struck – for just the second time in Test cricket – with his third ball when Dhoni edged a booming drive which flew high towards Jordan at fourth slip but he could not time his jump to intercept the chance.
Dhoni was always keen to try and get onto the front foot and England’s response was to bowl a touch shorter, which took them away from what had provided all the earlier success. It was not a complete dereliction of their duties as happened at Lord’s, but they were perhaps sucked in by Dhoni’s method. Whenever the ball was full, it kept moving.
As it did at Lord’s, Ajinkya Rahane’s technique, playing the ball late with a straight bat, stood him in good stead and he was the most comfortable of India’s batsmen in the morning session only to be let down by a rare misjudgement, driving at a swinging delivery, although it was a timely reminder to England’s bowlers that the cost of a few boundaries is worth the potential reward of the outside edge. For Jordan, the weakest link of the attack at the Ageas Bowl, it was an important wicket after two barren outings although the support for Anderson and Broad was still not as exacting as it could have been.
Shortly after lunch the other half of the recent off-field drama, Ravindra Jadeja, who had not been given an overly welcoming reception from the partisan crowd, was pinned lbw by a classic Anderson set-up, almost identical to how he fell at the Ageas Bowl. At 63 for 6 three figures was looking some way off for India.
Ashwin counter-attacked, picking off England’s bowlers when they were drawn into bowling too straight, and the total was doubled during the 14-over stand with Dhoni. However, when there was just a hint that England could let frustration get to them, Ashwin picked out deep square-leg from a short delivery. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s batting mojo has deserted him since Lord’s and he left a delivery that hit middle stump and after Dhoni collected a few defiant boundaries managed to pick out the only fielder within acres on the leg side.
It was not perfect from England. Early in England’s reply, Robson shouldered arms to a well-disguised inswinger from Bhuvneshwar which took his off stump. It was an unconvincing stay from Robson, who twice nearly edged to slip, and he is the one new member of the batting order who, despite his hundred against Sri Lanka, has yet to wholly convince.
If Robson is feeling any pressure, he could glance over at his opening partner. Cook revived his fortunes last week and, as he slotted away an on- and off-drive off Pankaj Singh, and was moving smoothly only to be outdone by a slippery short delivery from Aaron who touched 90mph during a lively spell. Going for the hook, Cook was not in control and top-edged to Pankaj at long leg. Pankaj took it nonchalantly, but surely will have wished the dismissal was the other way around: his wait for a maiden Test wicket goes on.