A final day that started with a quiet, but defiant optimism ended with heads down and tails between legs for England as Virat Kohli’s India romped to victory in the Fourth Test at The Oval.
The task ahead on Monday morning was to climb a mountain – a record-breaking one at that – but a mountain of which England had already made it to base camp. Haseeb Hameed and Rory Burns’ assured start to England’s pursuit of what would have been their biggest ever test run chase had a sell-out crowd in South London believing they might just see history; or at the very least that India would struggle to take 10 wickets on a pitch offering very little at all to the visitors’ four seamers. Any such thoughts dissipated as India returned after lunch interested in just one type of history: their own.
And it is with India where any reflection on the Fourth Test should start. A hundred runs down after the first innings, India battled back, as we now all know they can – and seemingly often will – do.
For this is an India who won a series in Australia which started with them getting bowled out for 36 and ended with them fielding an inexperienced, scrambled together side which would do the unthinkable and beat Australia in Brisbane. An India who won at Lord’s in spite of a Joe Root 180.
And now an India who bounced back from a paltry 78 all-out at Headingley to go 2-1 up at The Oval. In Virat Kohli they have a captain who smells blood as well as any in world cricket – and he has created a team which feeds off his instincts.
Sensing weakness, India, happy to concede runs, were hyper-aggressive in the field, single-minded and doggedly determined in their pursuit of wickets. Undeterred by the absence of Rohit Sharma – a key tactical confidant of the skipper missing through injury – and the ever-present spectre of the great Ravichandran Ashwin, left out on England’s most spin-friendly pitch, Kohli has once again left his doubters blushing.
From the moment he wheeled away in typical, almost angry, celebration of the first wicket, the great man was on a mission. To play for this India team, you must be ready to go with him on that mission. To a man they were, and their leader deserves all the praise and accolades he will receive.
Yet the day did not belong just to Kohli. The removal of Ollie Pope may have only been Jasprit Bumrah’s 100th test wicket (James Anderson has 632), but it came amid a spell which showed just why Boom-Boom-Bumrah is feared the world over.
It may feel like the unmistakeable action of India’s most lethal weapon has been around far too long to only have claimed 100 (now 101) victims, but such are Indian pitches that Bumrah only made his home test debut against England earlier this year.
Monday saw him become the fastest Indian to a century of wickets. The remarkable thing about Bumrah is his status among the world’s very best across the formats. And it was a vintage Jasprit Bumrah T20 ball which provided the moment of the day and the match.
A ridiculous in-swinging yorker to Johnny Bairstow which thundered through the Yorkshireman’s leg stump. Utterly unplayable. IPL viewers will have recognised it as the number 93’s trademark – only this time delivered to perfection on the biggest of test stages.
Wickets 100 and 101 came within a spell of 6 overs for just 6 runs. The bowling spell of the summer, and about as good as you will see in any summer.
So, India were very good. Rohit’s maiden overseas test century, the exploits of Shardul Thakur with bat and ball – we could go on.
But on to England. Because however good India were, England still gave away 8 wickets in less than a session and a half. Bairstow can be excused as the victim of that Bumrah ball, but the wickets of Hameed and Ali (a disappointing regular in poor middle-order showings since being restored to the side) to Jadeja were poor batting rather than good bowling. And Dawid Malan looked like he was about ready to succumb in similar vein to the spinner until Hameed saved him the bother by all-but running him out.
In the first innings, England were 6-2 and 62-5 before recovering, but even in that recovery, frustratingly, it was only Pope who was able to build on solid, often elegant starts, to make a significant score.
And all those 30s cost England, as India, on the same pitch, made 466. A 466 which included a century partnership between a hugely out-of-sorts Rishabh Pant, and Shardul Thakur. Thakur may be explosive, but should not be allowed to make two half-centuries in a test match.
Bumrah, Shami, Ishant Sharma, and now Thakur have all contributed significant scores with the bat this summer. While England have routinely struggled to remove what was generally considered to be a pretty hapless Indian tale, on Monday India ripped through England’s.
Aggressive fields, general persistence with bowler’s best balls, and crucially, an attack full of potent options. Thakur, Siraj, Yadav, Bumrah – Shami, and Ishant previously – offers no weak links. Certainly not when the heat is on as it was on Monday. With Mark Wood and Jofra Archer absent, the England attack always offers weak links – and desperately lacks in variety.
So when Joe Root receives criticism as captain as he has done at times this summer, let us remember that among the areas for improvement are batting, bowling, and fielding – England are the worst of the elite test nations in the slips over the last few years – and that with so many deficiencies, a captain will struggle.
This is not a case of a team not playing well enough, but a team that is not good enough. Not good enough to regularly compete with India or New Zealand, anyway. And especially not when the going gets tough.
That also does not mean that the players need to change, because the options to replace them are limited. So let the debates about The Hundred, the disjointed County Championship season, and the sheer amount of cricket our top players play rumble on.
The T20 World Cup will come along and hopefully provide some positivity. It is a tournament England should win, especially now it is not to be played in India. England may even win the Fifth Test, but doing so will not mask this as a failure of a test summer.
Fighting to draw a home series is never a good look. And then to Brisbane and to Fortress Gabba we will go, to face an Australia hardly in a good place themselves, to start an attempt to reclaim The Ashes. Right now, the thought is an ominous one.
Image: John Garghan via Flickr