The “win the toss, win the match” truism has never been a reliable indicator and England may well be on the way to proving that. Alastair Cook won what was regarded as an important toss on a dull grey pitch, which prompted English smiles, but then the poor quality of England’s batting at the top of the order soon triggered grimaces.
The day finished with England on 268 for eight. This was an opportunity squandered. The surface hid few demons, the odd delivery popped, a few turned but generally everything happened slowly and the expectation is that batting will never be as straightforward as it was on Saturday, when England’s finest contrived to gift wrap their wickets. They needed to be in a position to bat at least until lunchtime on the second day when the groundsmen of India usually predict that the ball will start to bite. With eight wickets down and Jimmy Anderson coming off a king pair that now seems unlikely.
But for their wicketkeepers England would be in an even deeper hole. Jonny Bairstow, in his new position at No5, did his best to stitch the innings together with a tenacious knock of 89. He is now a source of reassurance, calm and calculated against the spinners. He knows how he expects to score his runs, sweeping more frequently as his innings progresses and, most importantly, he trusts his defence.
His most effective partner was Jos Buttler in his latest role as a No7 in Test cricket. They added 69, the biggest partnership of the day, which only highlights the fact that England were unable to benefit from Cook’s brilliant call of heads. Buttler, after a careful start when he scored three runs from his first 20 balls, batted with poise for 43, not a bad effort given his lack of preparation. But 43s seldom change the course of a Test.
There was an element of self-destruction about most of England’s dismissals. Haseeb Hameed was – by a distance – the least culpable of all of them. He will be thoroughly tested by short balls before his Test career advances much further but there was not much he could do with a leaping delivery from Umesh Yadav, which thudded into his left glove before lobbing to gully.
Until then he had looked more secure than Cook, who edged through the slips off Mohammed Shami, the ball travelling so rapidly that Ravindra Jadeja barely reacted at all. Later, the England captain, whose footwork looked more ponderous than usual, presented a straightforward chance to Ravi Ashwin at square-leg, which was unaccountably dropped.
Hameed might have felt betrayed by the pitch but this was an inappropriate response for the other batsmen. There was some callow batting to come from the senior citizens. Joe Root had batted sublimely until drinks against Umesh Yadav, taking three effortless fours and, no doubt, noting that the outfield seemed to make the ball accelerate towards the boundaries. Immediately after drinks he faced his first ball of spin from Jayant Yadav and he was lbw attempting a hapless pull stroke.
The delivery was probably not that short. It was certainly straight and Root missed it. It was one of the worst shots imaginable from England’s best player. Root has scored runs on this tour and has always looked in fine touch but there remains a tension within him that he has not made the most of his good form. That was obviously the case on Saturday.
In the next over Cook fell to Ashwin’s first ball. It may well have been cuttable but the first delivery from any new bowler can have a special potency. Parthiv Patel, returning to the Indian Test side after an eight-year absence held the catch and suddenly, on a blameless track, England were 51 for three.
Moeen Ali, who has now batted everywhere for England between No1 and No9 – except No3, which is where he bats for Worcestershire on his increasingly rare appearances – defended securely against the spinners. Then he glided down the pitch to hit lofted drives for four and six against Jayant Yadav from consecutive deliveries. So back came Shami for the old three-card trick. He posted a short-leg and two men back on the leg side. The first bouncer was propelled and Moeen promptly top-edged it straight into the hands of Murali Vijay at fine leg.
Ben Stokes rallied alongside Bairstow in a partnership of 59 acquired either side of lunch. But then the easily underestimated Jadeja defeated Stokes by beating the outside edge as the batsman advanced down the pitch. It seems that Virat Kohli opted to bid Stokes farewell inappropriately and the umpires were quick to intervene. The send-off is the most pointless exercise in cricket since the job has been done. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly commonplace.
Buttler and Bairstow advanced freely until tea with the former hitting off-side boundaries against the pacemen, sometimes from the middle of his bat. After the break India sought to restrain them and they succeeded partly through the good offices of Jadeja. Then Buttler came down the pitch aiming to punch a drive to long-off for a single.
Perhaps the ball turned a little but he ended up giving a straightforward catch to Kohli at short extra cover. Buttler had not looked out of place as a Test batsman here, which is not so surprising since he possesses bottle and talent, if not experience. But this was another soft dismissal.
In that final session England could not break the shackles and there were two interventions by the Yadavs. Jayant, switching to around the wicket, had Bairstow lbw prodding forward to an off-break and the irrepressible Umesh hit Chris Woakes’s off stump with the second new ball. This left two of England’s spinners at the crease, Adil Rashid and Gareth Batty, who was given the last bowling place before the toss, but this pair would prefer not to start bowling for a while.