It was a strange day’s play, to say the least.
India began it by announcing they had gone into the deciding Test match with four spinners on a surface splintered with cracks, and ended perhaps wishing for the services of another two fast bowlers. Alastair Cook finally won a toss, promptly opted to bat, and quickly found the Nagpur pitch a difficult one to bat on, facing 28 balls for one run before he was incorrectly given out lbw. With the ball repeatedly dying, England ground their way to 199 for 5 in 97 overs having gifted two wickets to a debutant who few in the country would have expected to play Test cricket and another to a much-maligned legspinner playing his first match in four-and-a-half-years. Yes, you can be excused for being a bit fuzzy about day one in Nagpur.
Within moments of play getting underway it was evident that this was not a pitch suitable for day one of a Test match. Yes, India have a match to win and a series to level but even by those parameters it was painful to watch Ishant Sharma’s second ball of the match barely cross Cook’s shin. Such surfaces make Test cricket attritional, and that was just the kind of cricket that played out.
On a pitch on which the ball regularly died after pitching, Ishant began with a spell of 6-2-8-2 that accounted for England’s openers. That set the tone for a crawling day but also highlighted India’s problem that Ishant was only able to bowl six overs when he was the team’s biggest threat. India misread the track, and on this kind of pitch a shot of pace would have been extremely handy. They had two pace bowlers watching from the sidelines. It was odd.
As it became evident that grafting was the order of the day, Kevin Pietersen stepped up with an innings of application and ruggedness. He was welcomed by a short-of-a-length delivery that barely rose to the waist, and after weaving out of its way awkwardly Pietersen set himself in for a high-quality but measured innings. Rarely has he been forced to play this way, and considering his desire to dominate Pietersen’s 188-ball 73 was a tremendous innings. Even if it ended with a dismissal to left-arm spin again – the 27th time overall. “That was one of the toughest wickets I have played Test cricket on. Just so slow, it won't get any better,” he said after stumps.
It was the debutant Ravindra Jadeja who provided India the much-desired spark with the wickets of Jonathan Trott and Pietersen, though both dismissals had more to do with lapse of concentration than venomous deliveries. Jadeja, selected as something of a like-for-like replacement for Yuvraj Singh at No. 6, came on to bowl the 13th over ahead of R Ashwin and sent down 25 overs of tidy left-arm spin. On a pitch on which batting was not easy, Jadeja plugged away manfully with a simple tactic: land the ball in about the same place six times in an over and see what happens.
Jadeja’s repertoire is limited and well-suited to limited-overs cricket, but it worked well for the 24-year-old on Test debut. With the ball darting around, he kept the ball on the stumps for the most part and invited the batsman to come at him. Pietersen and Trott obliged initially with a couple brazen shots with good use of the feet, but as Jadeja got a feel for Test cricket they retracted. He bowled five spells, with the third and best being a run of 8-6-3-1 after lunch when Trott misread an arm ball and didn’t offer a shot. In his fourth spell, Jadeja had Pietersen caught at midwicket when on the charge. As unfancied Test debuts go, this was a purposeful start for Jadeja. Ashwin would do well to observe his team-mate’s approach with the ball.
India’s fifth wicket came thanks to an uppish drive from Ian Bell to Piyush Chawla, whose selection as Zaheer Khan’s replacement was befuddling. That England did not succumb further owed to a dogged stand of 60 in 29.3 overs between Joe Root and Matt Prior who, after the panache of Pietersen, have rebuilt the innings with old-fashioned spit and grit. Prior does not shirk a challenge, and the way he applied himself on this dodgy surface to reach stumps on 34 off 83 balls has put England a hair’s length ahead of their opponents. Happily for England, the 21-year-old Root didn’t miss a cue. His stubborn innings of 31 off 100 balls has proved, at least today, that he was an inspired pick ahead of Eoin Morgan and Jonny Bairstow.
It was a strange day indeed.