Intensity, tension and an ultimate examination of courage and skill: such is the oft-stated attraction of Test cricket. But sometimes a day at the Test is none of those things, but just gambols along pleasantly enough, the result as good as decided from an early hour, with wastefulness at every turn. Saturday at The Oval felt like this – but Joe Root was keenly resistant to the dangers.
When India took four England wickets in 11 overs on the second afternoon, transforming England’s supremacy at 191 for 1 – already 43 runs to the good – into a somewhat careless position of authority at 229 for 5, Root glanced meaningfully at a deteriorating scoreboard, a young batsman who was obliged to get his old head on again. When it comes to the business of batting, his old head is never far away.
By the close of the second day of the final Investec Test, Root had re-established England’s supremacy, not by withdrawing into himself, but by an innings both shrewd and enterprising: 92 not out from 129 balls. His forces off the back foot – his trademark shot – were crisp and assured. He survived some testing overs with the second new ball from Varun Aaron, a little jumpily at times, before preying upon a tiring attack so successfully in the closing overs that he almost stole in for a century. England scored 139 in 32 overs after tea.
His contentment now he has a settled position in the middle order was unmistakeable, his adaptability growing by the month, desire for runs unabated. Even with the damage of a troubled Ashes series, his Test average is heading towards 50. That one day he will captain England seems inevitable.
Root now has a half-century in every Test in this five-match series, an achievement only matched by Wally Hammond and Peter May in the mists of time. He loves batting and even in his most defensive mode his mind ticks so obviously that he is eminently watchable. On this occasion, he was busy from the outset, a perky stand of 80 in 25 overs with Jos Buttler singing of a new England era, runs cascading in the closing overs to prey on a tiring Indian attack, not as much playing for the morrow, as taking advantage of today. He destroyed India with a sweet touch.
India’s attack had its limitations, although it showed more relish for the fight than the batsmen. Bhuvneshwar Kumar looked spent, the effects of five Tests in six weeks. Ishant Sharma found threatening bounce at times but he was well below the pace that destroyed England at Lord’s. R Ashwin, although not particularly threatening, might have bowled more. As for Stuart Binny, that first Test wicket remains elusive.
But even days of unremitting domination there can be casualties. Sam Robson could be one. He made a maiden Test hundred in his second Test of the summer, against Sri Lanka at Headingley, but over seven Tests he has barely averaged 30 and, for all his earnestness, he has struggled to assert himself.
Robson fell in the second over of the morning, poking unconvincingly at his second ball, from Aaron, steering the next awkwardly through gully for four, and then being bowled by a near yorker. It was another stilted dismissal for a player who has looked somewhat manufactured. He might get a chance to bat again in this Test – the last of the summer – and it will be April before England turn to the five-day game again on a three-Test tour of the West Indies.
Aaron was India’s figure of hope. It was a wholehearted spell from Aaron, who bowled his share of gifts, but who regularly found swing at close to 90mph, that shook India into a concerted response after England, 148 for 1 by lunch, had achieved parity, their nine remaining wickets asserting their dominance as plain as a row of pikestaffs.
Then four of those pikestaffs toppled over. Alastair Cook was dropped twice at first slip before a third edge to the same position in eight overs was finally held, so ending an innings of 79 that had begun responsibly but which, in its closing stages, had all the stability of a rich curry on an acid stomach.
Cook has arrested his decline with three half-centuries in four, getting more bend in his front leg than he did at the start of the summer. India’s bowlers graciously fed him his favourite cut and pull shots that a few weeks ago he must have imagined he would never gorge on again.
But it would be misleading to suggest that all his problems are behind him. He was twice reprieved, on 65 and 70. M Vijay spurned a straightforward chance at waist high; it was his catch, but his lack of understanding with his wicketkeeper MS Dhoni is doubtless preying on his mind. Ajinkya Rahane missed a slightly tougher opportunity as Cook tried to force Ashwin off the back foot. Finally, Vijay held one, a good catch low to his right.
Gary Ballance was bemused by his own misjudgement on 64 when he pushed rigidly at a nondescript delivery by Ashwin, perhaps benefiting from a touch of extra bounce, and planted the ball into the hands of silly mid-off.
Ballance’s start to his Test career remains among the best in England’s history. He is a utilitarian cricketer, a batsman whose worth has become apparent as the summer has progressed. The shot that brought up his half-century summed up his composure: swaying out of the way of a short ball from Bhuvneshwar, calmly reassessed and instead steered it with ease over the slips.
In the over after Ballance’s dismissal, India struck again, Ian Bell pushing at a length ball from Ishant that straightened just a tad. Moeen Ali’s reputation for soft dismissals will also be entrenched further after he played on against Ashwin, indecisive over whether to leave the ball. A bowling attack which could have been forgiven for surrendering to despair had instead responded gamely.
Buttler made another useful contribution before he clipped an inswinger from Ishant to short midwicket, Chris Woakes fell down the leg side, third ball for nought, but Root and Chris Jordan remained at the close. Stuart Broad, next man in, fingered his broken nose and was probably grateful for at least another 16 hours’ healing.