KARACHI : It was beautiful, at times gritty, often inscrutable but seductive throughout; the fourth Test between England and India at The Ageas Bowl in Southampton was a purist’s delight. This was just the kind of game which would get your nerves twitching if you are away from it.
“It’s the most beautiful format of the game. I think that if you really understand the sport, if you really love the sport, you understand Test cricket and you understand how exciting it is,” India captain Virat Kohli told Wisden Cricket Monthly before the Test match.
Kohli-led India might have surrendered the series against England but collectively, the two sides carved out a memorable depiction of the aforementioned statement.
In the fourth Test of the five-match series, fortunes fluctuated like a game of poker.
India started on a high with quick wickets with the new ball, seemingly picking up from where they left off in the previous test.
Whether it was Jasprit Bumrah setting up Keaton Jennings in the first innings (bowled three away from the batsmen in previous over while the first delivery of his next over came in and took the left-hander’s wicket) or Mohammad Shami getting the better off Jos Buttler by bowling a wider line (sixth or seventh stump) than he usually does —enticing the wicketkeeper-batsman into playing a shot away from his body — the Indian pacers displayed great control and quality.
It came down to young Sam Curran to lead home sides fight-back with a gutsy half-century which helped England in avoiding complete capitulation.
Curran innings also prompted a typical fast bowlers’ grimace on Shami’s face after he smacked him straight over his head for a boundary. No fast bowler likes that.
England posted a modest total of 246 on the board albeit enough to mount a challenge.
In response, India looked set for a big lead at 142-2 but then lost six wickets for 53 runs which helped Root’s men to claw their way back into the match.
All-rounder Moeen Ali, who seemed to have life sucked out of him during the last Ashes tour of Australia, was picked to play for the first time in the series and he proved to be the real difference in the outcome of the match.
The right-arm off-spinner cleverly slowed down his pace to generate more spin in the first innings and bowled slower than he did in 11 of his last 12 innings. Little tweaks can make a massive difference and Ali’s five-wicket haul in the first-innings showed just that.
There was a brain fade moment too when Kohli — the player with the least false shot percentage amongst players currently playing in the world cricket — played away from his body, and throwing away a good start in the first innings, at a ball which he could have easily left.
On the other hand, England captain Joe Root was commanding his troops astutely which was showcased from his clever fielding trap to dismiss Hardik Pandya.
But just when the pendulum seemed to be swinging in England’s favour, a determined century from Cheteshwar Pujara — who was under pressure due to lack of runs — secured India a thin but priceless lead of 27 runs by scoring his first century on English soil and only second outside Asia.
England found themselves in a similar situation in the second innings as well with half their side back in the hut with just 122 runs on the board. It was down to valuable contributions from wicketkeeper-batsman Jos Buttler and Curran down the order which kept England in the hunt and set India target of 245 runs to stay alive in the series.
Chasing the target, the visitors got off to the worst possible start as they slumped to 22-3 inside nine over with James Anderson and Stuart Broad showing their magic for the home side at last.
But the drama was far from over. Root was fuming over his counterpart’s debatable LBW decision off Ali, but Ajinkya Rahane alongside Kohli was keeping his calm as India started to claw back in the contest.
That duo added 101 runs for the fourth wicket and at one stage, visitors were in commanding position to register famous comeback from two-nil down in the series.
But there was one last twist remaining for the spectators as Ali removed Kohli in a classic off-spin fashion and put the home side in commanding position for the series triumph.
Curran fittingly picked up the final wicket having played such a significant part in the team’s series win and Ali bagged the player of the match award for picking up nine wickets in the match.
The result showed England as the victorious side, but the real winner was Test cricket, which once again showed that it has much more to offer to the game than its critics believe.