The absence of Ravichandran Ashwin was acutely felt by India on the second day of the fourth Test against England here on Friday.
From 62 for five, England batsmen Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow established dominance over a flagging Indian pace attack. The challenge the Indian off-spinner was likely to have posed was not at the tourists’ disposal. The hosts thereby registered a healthy and advantageous first innings lead of 99.
Although Ravindra Jadeja, the left-arm spinner included in the Indian side, collected two wickets, one was a gift from Moeen Ali, who inexplicably slashed at an innocuous delivery, and the other a tailender, Ollie Robinson. He did not trouble the upper middle order batsmen, lacking as he has in this series the necessary turn and variety expected of a quality spinner.
India were admittedly unfortunate to lose the toss on the opening morning on Thursday. Consequently, they were compelled to bat first in challenging conditions. The ball had comparatively lost its shine when Pope was joined by Bairstow. They made hay as Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj failed to desirably swing the ball; and Shardul Thakur, who does naturally bend the leather both ways, pitched too short to elicit an edge.
In the circumstances, Ashwin would probably have asked questions of the English batsmen with his bag of tricks. Very much in-form prior to the series, his exclusion from the side is as mysterious as it is mindless.
Unaccustomed to five-Test series, with the matches scheduled in such quick succession, Bumrah and Siraj unsurprisingly looked a bit jaded. One hopes the tour report to be submitted to the BCCI carries a convincing explanation for the sustained omission of Ashwin.
Having entered the fray with fresh legs, Umesh Yadav genuinely swung the ball. He dismissed the difficult-to-dislodge Joe Root with a peach of an inswing on the first day. On the second day, he produced an outswing to remove nightwatchman Craig Overton and then an inswinger to Dawid Malan an outswinger to the left-hander. Both times the slips did the rest.
Half a century ago at the same venue, India had recorded their historic maiden win in a Test in England. On that occasion, freak wrist spinner Bhagwath Chandrasekhar in an exhibition of unplayable bowling ensnared six wickets for 38 runs to nullify England’s first innings lead of 71 and render India’s fourth innings task that much easier.
India will have to bat out of their skins to prevent defeat in the fourth Test. It should of course be easier to bat on the third day than it was on the first. But it will need a Houdini act to escape from here.
(Senior cricket writer Ashis Ray is a broadcaster and author of the book ‘Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge’)