Chasing down big fourth innings targets with ease is a skill that England seem to get better and better at, as also at winning Test matches where they have conceded 400-plus or even 500 runs in the first innings. Considering that they were completely outplayed for the most part of the first three days of the rescheduled fifth Test match against India, it is amazing how comfortably they emerged winners in the end, as the last one and a half days completely turned the match on its head. India, their ranks depleted by COVID-19 and injury, encountered two very good batters in the form of their life, on a gloriously sunny day on a wicket that had eased out and a ball that simply refused to move. (More Cricket News)
And England, from scraping the bottom of the barrel in Australia not so long ago, here they are, sitting on an incredible summit of four successive Test victories against the finalists of the inaugural ICC World Test Championship. On present form, they can probably chase down any target that’s set for them in the fourth innings in home conditions.
The key to Test match batting now seems to lie in taking the attack to the opposition bowlers, even when early wickets have been lost, scoring at over four runs an over, consistently. Obviously, it helps if you have batters who are in such prime form, who feel confident enough to knock bowlers off their length even when they have their tails up, often playing audacious white-ball shots seldom seen in Test cricket before.
A New Template
Attack is the new defence in Test cricket.
This change in strategy and approach is such a departure from traditional Test match batting going back nearly a century and a half. Steady, patient batters, prepared to wait out sessions when bowlers were on top, leaving the ball and preferring to keep the scoreboard moving mainly in singles, backed up by the odd boundary off a rare loose ball.
Today’s batters are not only going for their shots, but also preserving their wickets and making big scores. Many of them are good white-ball players. The high-scoring Test matches that we’ve seen of late with their high percentage of boundaries and sixes, are a testimony to this change that has made the longest format so entertaining and left so much time for chasing down tall 4th innings targets.
A pattern has started to emerge and it seems that this would be the template of Test cricket in times to come. The fearlessness of the modern-day cricketer against any bowler howsoever well established, is a treat to watch.
And it can only be all to the good for the longest format of the game.
The Edgbaston Case
England won the toss and put India in to bat and soon had them on the ropes at 98 for 5. But India recovered magnificently through Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, as they put on a brilliant double hundred partnership. Pant got a superb 145 while Jadeja scored an equally valuable 104. As always, Pant seemed unconcerned about the scoreboard and played some outrageous shots, even ending up flat on his back in the middle of the pitch, as he so often does. The sheer exuberance and flamboyance of a young 24-year-old to whom it all comes so easy!
The England bowling and fielding went from incisive to ragged as four overthrows, two sixes and another four came off one Jack Leach over that went for 22 as Pant went berserk. Root bowling his flattish off-spin, bowled a terrible half-pitch bouncer that was promptly despatched to the boundary. England seemed to be falling apart as runs came in a flood from both ends. Later, debutant skipper Jasprit Bumrah celebrated his elevation to the India captaincy by smashing a hapless Stuart Broad for a world record 35 runs in one insane over as India cruised past 400. Much as England had done against New Zealand, India were counterattacking brilliantly in the face of a top-order collapse.
And the crowds aren’t complaining.
A little later, with the new ball in hand, Bumrah was like a cat among pigeons as he dismissed the top three England batters for next to nothing, moving the ball both ways. The Indian pacers found sharp movement and disconcerting bounce off the wicket and looked like taking a wicket off every ball. It was one of the finest displays of hostile seam bowling seen in recent years. Even Joe Root struggled and only managed to glove one that took off from short of a good length en route to the keeper. In yet another disappointment, Virat Kohli was to do the same in the Indian second innings.
But the man in sublime form, Jonny Bairstow held firm, even though he played and missed a few times initially and went on to score his fifth hundred in his last eight Test matches. He was to add one more in the second innings. Even so, England conceded a substantial first innings lead and looked in danger of losing the Test at this stage.
The wicket on the first three days of this match looked definitely more difficult to bat on as compared to the ones in the New Zealand- England series. And to that extent, Pant, Jadeja and Bairstow’s hundreds were probably the best of the English summer this year, as Graham Swann said in the commentary.
Batters who tried to play in conventional Test match style perished at some point to an unplayable ball that had their name on it. But the ones who attack enjoyed a lot more success and knocked the bowlers off their length. These three were examples of that.
Acing The Chase
A below-par Indian second innings meant that England were batting again in the second session of the fourth day, chasing a daunting fourth innings target of 378. Like in the matches against New Zealand, they came out firing on all cylinders and raced away to 107 for no loss, before losing Zak Crawley at the stroke of tea break. A flurry of wickets followed immediately afterward as England slumped to 109 for 3 with the Indian pacers beginning to look menacing again.
But the wicket had eased out by then and the men who could do no wrong, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, came together and started to build a partnership. It was classical Test match batting at its best, as they effortlessly rotated the strike and creamed boundaries with increasing frequency as the partnership progressed. Scarcely a blip marred the stately advance that had an aura of inevitability to it.
And the Indian bowlers, who had looked so menacing earlier, seemed to run out of ideas as the two men gradually and systematically took England closer and closer to their highest ever successful fourth innings chase.
Any hopes of a breakthrough on the fifth morning were quickly negated as they continued from where they had left off the previous evening, growing more and more dominant. And like the third Test against New Zealand, England were home and dry in a high-scoring game even before lunch on the fifth day, scoring at nearly five runs an over.
Joe Root unveiled his now trademark reverse scoop over third man, yet again, this time to Shardul Thakur. In what was surely one of the greatest fourth innings partnerships of all time, Jonny Bairstow hit his second century of the match and Root cruised to an unbeaten 142, his 27th Test hundred overall and 11th in the last 18 months.
It was a memorable day in English cricket history, one that will surely be remembered for a long, long time. They won a famous victory in a remarkable match that ebbed and flowed and showcased all that is best in Test cricket.
Once again, the longest version had proved that there was nothing quite like it.
(The author is a former first-class cricketer and a retired Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force. Views are personal)