The majority of discussions in this series have been on the pitch, the ball or the deteriorating defensive techniques of the batsmen. That was largely because till today what we did not witness was a contest. Since the start of the series around a month back, most days have been a one-sided affair. The margin of wins in every Test point out to the same.
After what we witnessed today, there will be no discussion on the turning ball or falling standards. It will be the genius of a few players from both sides that will grab the limelight. After a shoddy batting effort on the first day, a lion-hearted effort with the ball from England's premier pacer and their most important player in the country brought them roaring back. The narrative changed again in the last session. This was due to the two Indian left-handers who got together to change the outlook of the match in two hours.
The first two sessions was all England
James Anderson is 38. An age when even spinners would start exploring life after cricket. Not him, despite being the only pacer with 600 Test wickets. Sportsmen overstaying their welcome is not unusual. But, Anderson is ageing like a classy French wine.
One criticism Anderson always faced was being ineffective in the subcontinent. In 2021, he has had six innings in Sri Lanka and India. His economy rate in these innings has been 1.8. In no other year since his debut, has he been more economical. Even at 38, he is tough to score off.
Anderson outdid himself in the last session of the first day. He bowled five maidens in a row and also accounted for Shubman Gill. His frugality continued on the second morning.
At times, even good habits are communicable. In the first nine overs this morning, bowled by Anderson and Ben Stokes, England gave away only 10 runs. Four of those came off one bad ball - a full toss that Rohit Sharma dispatched.
Keeping his pacers company, Jack Leach was tight. He had already dismissed Cheteshwar Pujara thrice in the series. The way he bowled to Pujara this morning, he would have fancied dismissing him three more times today itself. There were two close LBW shouts and an edge falling short of the first slip. In the end, it was the dreaded bat behind the pad that had Pujara walking. He averages under 20 against spin in this series. Never has he averaged lower in a home series against the tweakers.
Anderson gave away only three runs in his first spell of five overs. Stokes changed ends immediately to bowl from where Anderson operated. With three frontline bowlers, Stokes had to carry the workload. He bowled 10 of the 21 overs in the morning. None of them were timid. There were short balls aplenty indicating that the pitch had the juice for the pacers too.
Two overs after Pujara's dismissal, a bouncer from Stokes surprised Virat Kohli. Choosing to poke at it, he got a tickle to the keeper. It was the first time Kohli scored two ducks in a series after that dreaded tour to England in 2014.
By now, Leach was turning the ball viciously and Stokes was barraging Indian batsmen with bouncers. India scored 19 runs in the first 17 overs of the morning. They lost their glue and the skipper in the process.
This is when Rohit and Ajinkya Rahane went on the offensive. Rohit used his feet to hit Leach over mid-off. Rahane went back in his crease to pull him past midwicket. A tired Stokes dished a half-volley for Rahane as well.
Rohit welcomed Dom Bess with a slog sweep to the leg side. Continuing to be erratic, Bess gifted Rahane a full toss in his next over.
The last ball of Stokes' marathon effort in the morning nipped back in. This had Anderson back for a couple of overs before lunch. He bowled a couple of snorters, one reversing away and one coming into Rahane in the first over. In his second over - the last before lunch - Rahane jabbed at a ball bowled at a length moving away. Anderson with the ball and Stokes at slips combined to make it England's morning.
It was the reversing ball that pegged India further in the second session. After a spell of five frugal overs post lunch, England replaced Anderson with Stokes. Rohit was batting on 49 and was eager to reach his 13th half-century. Stokes was determined to make it as difficult as possible. Setting Rohit up, Stokes bowled five deliveries that moved away. The sixth one was the knockout punch. It was pitched up and reversed in. Rohit was not ready and was not in a position to counter it. The umpire adjudged him to be in front of the stumps. Rohit's knock came at a strike-rate of 34.03. His slowest-ever innings in Test cricket whenever he faced 100+ balls. A testament to England's bowling all morning.
The rescue act and much more
2021 has been the year of Rishabh Pant. He gave India hope in Sydney and saw them through in Brisbane. And now against England, he smashed his first century on home soil in what is likely to be a series-winning effort.
Like Pant's twin innings in Australia, India were once again in muddy waters when he walked in. For his first 50 runs, Pant batted with caution. His strike-rate was 60.98 - moderate by his standards - when he crossed the milestone.
When Rohit and Pant were batting post-lunch, they milked Dom Bess who continued to err in either line, length or at times both. To compensate for wayward Bess, Joe Root brought himself on. But Pant hit him out of the attack with reverse sweeps and a six over long-off. The pair added 41 runs in 11 overs after lunch before Rohit fell.
While Pant was around, England hesitated to bring Jack Leach to the attack. But, Pant batted at a control percentage of 95.8% against right-arm off-spin in the afternoon session. After adding 41 with Rohit, Pant helped India reach 24 runs near England's total with Ravi Ashwin before tea. Washington Sundar joined Pant at Ashwin's departure. Pant crossed the 50-run mark in the 71st over of the innings, the 10th over post tea.
Moments later, Pant switched on the beast mode. He got England to remove Leach from the attack with a slog sweep. Stokes replaced Leach but it made no difference. Chancing his luck, Pant threw his bat to collect a boundary over the slip cordon. Next came a pull to midwicket. In the next over -79th of the innings- he swept Root on consecutive balls. The first was a lucky boundary over the first slip, the next a well-connected sweep.
The more breath-taking aspect of Pant's batting came out after England took the new ball. To the first ball itself - off James Anderson - Pant danced down the wicket to smash him past mid-off. He then swatted him through the covers. The most audacious shot of the match came in Anderson's next over. To a ball in the channel, Pant took the stance for a reverse sweep and lapped the ball over the cordon. Anderson was left expressionless while Root could only smile from behind the wickets.
Prior to today, Pant had three scores in the 90s and no century in India. And yet he had the audacity to slog-sweep Root in the next over to move from 94 to a 100. His second set of 50 runs came off 33 balls. A mistimed shot in Anderson's next over ended his knock. But, he had done enough for India to see things through from there.
From 146/6 and 59 runs behind England's score, Pant took India to 259/7. He did this in the company of Sundar who played a sublime knock himself. Like Pant, he too made giant strides in his career on the Australian tour. When Pant reached 50, Sundar had attacked 39.1% of balls. The highest in this Test then. Pant was next with 36.7% attacking shots. Such was Sundar's authoritative start that his control% of 90.6% then was next only to Rahane's 91.1%. He collected three boundaries off Stokes when Pant was attacking. Sundar dominated further after Pant's dismissal. He crunched Anderson and Stokes for fours through covers and point. Anderson's economy rate in 2021 was 1.6 till the afternoon session. He gave away 21 runs in three overs with the second new ball. Bess bowled his 10th full toss of the game that was taken care of by Sundar.
Even after finishing the day at 60*, Sundar maintained a control percentage of 89.7%. Along with Axar Patel, he added 35 unbeaten runs till stumps. India added 141 runs in 32 overs in the last session. The dry patch from the morning was forgotten.
After a roller-coaster day, India will feel they should start finalizing the itinerary for the World Test Championship final. On the contest front, the ongoing series needed more days like today.