England took the honours on Day 1 of the third Test against India at the Rose Bowl, Southampton, via an industrious 158-run, second-wicket partnership between captain Alastair Cook (95) and Gary Ballance (104 not out).
Ballance hit his third century in six Tests, an effective and productive innings if not pretty to watch, and he was supported by the return to form of a much maligned Cook, who played a disciplined and watchful innings under pressure that temporarily silenced critics of his batting, if not captaincy.
Even though he missed out on a first Test century since last May, Cook would be the happier of the two captains at the end of what was easily one of the better days English cricket has witnessed in a while.
Right from winning the toss and allowing his team to bat first on one of the best tracks for batting in the country, to losing just two wickets at the end of the day, Cook and England barely put a foot wrong.
If India want to see the bright side, it is that they managed to restrict the flow of runs on an unhelpful surface. England failed to pass the 250-mark on the day and still have some work to do if they want to dictate terms in this Test.
The story could have been a lot different had Lord's hero Ravindra Jadeja latched on to a dolly of a catch in the slip cordon when Cook was just on 15, thereby denying India’s debutant seam bowler Pankaj Singh his first Test wicket.
Jadeja made amends with his own bowling later in the day as he had Cook caught behind off a delivery that was in no way a wicket-taking one but not before the England captain had added a further 80 runs to his score.
Throughout the Cook-Ballance partnership, Jadeja subscribed, or was ordered to subscribe, to the leg theory for the two left-handers and bowled to a 7-2 field in favour of the leg-side.
The defensive tactic, no doubt one concocted by Indian skipper MS Dhoni, begged to ask the question whether Jadeja’s only task as a bowler was to restrict the flow of runs. The left-arm spinner did very well, which was reflected in his economy rate of 1.54, but then keeping a check on run-flow doesn’t win you Test matches; wickets do.
Given that the pitch was not offering much assistance to the bowlers on Day 1, the Indian attack cut a dispirited note for a majority of the day.
Bar for a brief spell after the fall of Cook’s wicket in the evening session, it seemed as if the Indians were content with restricting the run-flow and were just expecting the wickets to fall into their laps.
At Trent Bridge, on a track that was even flatter, the Indian bowlers had struggled, but there were short bursts of energy and conviction provided by Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, which were sorely missed on Sunday.
The Englishmen did well to keep the leading wicket-taker of the series, Bhuvneshwar, quiet. Shami, on the other hand, kept himself quiet as he continued to inexplicably drift down the leg and gifted easy runs.
Pankaj was the only bowler who looked like taking a wicket and would consider himself extremely unlucky not to have opened his Test account. He could have had two to his name had it not been for Jadeja’s dropped catch and an umpiring howler by Rod Tucker.
The heavily built Pankaj, who had come in to the side for the injured Ishant Sharma, bowled a good line and length throughout his 20 overs and produced good variations off the seam, which India will hope he can sustain for the length of the match.
Meanwhile, Dhoni will know that his attempts to suffocate the run-flow will backfire soon enough if his bowlers do not pick up wickets, making the morning session of Day 2 extremely vital. A total of 400-plus is not going to be easy to match as the pitch wears down, and this is where he would hope his bolstered batting line-up turns up.
As it turned out, Dhoni’s first defensive move in the Test came even before a single ball was bowled. Ineffective all-rounder Stuart Binny was expectedly benched but replaced by an extra batsman in Rohit Sharma, rather than off-spinner and two-Test centurion Ravichandran Ashwin.
With Binny bowling just 20 overs across the last two Tests, perhaps Dhoni felt that he was not using his fifth bowler at all, so he might as well include an extra batsman. But the decision could backfire given his bowlers’ exploits on Day 1.
India need to pick up 20 wickets to win the Test, and including Ashwin in the side would only have boosted their chances of doing so.
Even without six specialist batsmen, India had managed to score 457 and 391 at Trent Bridge on a pitch that wasn’t too different from the one at the Rose Bowl, at least on Day 1. An additional bowler—and one who can definitely bat as well—seemed a logical choice.
Dhoni’s team selection and on-field tactics appear to be a big gamble as things stand and will have to be justified over the next four days.
The Indian skipper may have felt that he had the liberty to execute a defensive policy given that his side is 1-0 up in the series, but there’s plenty of time for that scoreline to change—the last series between these two teams being proof of it.