“The next hour/session of play is going to be crucial.”
It is a fairly common saying while assessing the flow of a Test match in England. It is a cliche that can never be overused. The conditions in England fluctuate so much that no side gains a decisive advantage in that anticipated phase of play, keeping the suspense intact.
The Day 2 of the Oval Test began and ended on a similar note. India started in a spectacular fashion. Umesh Yadav sent the overnight batsmen packing in the first hour and alongside Jasprit Bumrah, kept a halt on England’s progress. With Joe Root, England’s talisman this year, dismissed towards the end of Day 1, a batting collapse felt inevitable, putting India in a position to gain a handy first-innings lead.
However, the conditions became slightly better for batting. India’s change bowlers were not up to the mark and the visitors lost steam. England cashed on the loose deliveries and Ollie Pope, in crucial partnerships with Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, carried England into the lead. Chris Woakes’ counterattacking fifty in the lower order bloated the lead to 99.
This presented England with the chance to put their foot on India’s throat. But Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul negated the tense 16-over phase and wiped out nearly half of the deficit, leaving India unscathed at stumps. The situation again encouraged the notion - the first hour of play tomorrow will be crucial.
It has been a frustrating few months for Ollie Pope. Resuming his international career with great promise in February this year, Pope was consistently falling short despite good starts. Prior to this series, he had played 12 Test innings in 2021 where he was unbeaten once and got into the double figures on 10 other occasions. Yet, his highest score was only 34, achieved in his first Test knock of the year, in Chennai.
He missed the start of this series due to an aggravated thigh muscle injury, which he blamed on the relentless schedule in the T20 Blast. Walking in at 62 for five with the opposition on top and both series and his career on the line, the nerves can jangle.
“I have watched the way Root has played this series”, said Pope after the day's play, answering if he has made a conscious effort to take a middle-stump guard instead of standing at the off-stump as he was doing against New Zealand in June. In addition to the stance, there was a lot more Root-like about his innings today. He didn’t let the situation overwhelm him and kept playing his shots.
When India’s energy nosedived post the first drinks break, he reaped benefits, starting with three boundaries off Shardul Thakur. The strike-rates across lengths exhibit his urgency to express himself rather than getting bogged down, much like Root has done this series.
Most importantly, he did not throw it away. He was the nucleus around whom England recovered from 62 for five to 250 for eight until his dismissal.
“Disappointed not to get a hundred but if you had said 81 to me at the start of this Test match, I would have taken it”, stated Pope talking to the SkySports. To make it special, it was his first Test knock at his home ground.
Drop in the intensity and other old issues resurfacing
Both sides had a chance to tighten their grip in the match but could not due to a drop in intensity. India, after conceding only 25 runs for two wickets in the first 13 overs of the day, leaked 61 runs in 12 overs between drinks and lunch.
Thakur conceded four consecutive boundaries (including four leg byes) in the first over post drinks which opened the gates. Yadav was not the same bowler after his morning spell, going for 44 in eight overs in his last two spells. While Virat Kohli went with four pacers to attack, he had to bowl an extended spell of Ravindra Jadeja to stop the run-flow.
It was a case of the Indian bowlers trying too hard and ultimately lacking discipline, akin to Day 4 of the Trent Bridge Test. Only Jasprit Bumrah was consistent through and through.
England once again had batsmen not batting long enough after getting their eye in. Bairstow’s return to Test cricket is now a collection of unfulfilled knocks - 29, 30, 57, 2, 29 and today, 37. Moeen Ali went for the slog against Jadeja but suddenly checked his shot, thus handing an easy catch to Rohit, at 35. Both of them got out when the ball was not doing much and the lead could have looked a lot more handsome.
Thanks to Woakes’ late assault, who is having a gala time on his return to Test cricket, England stretched their lead to 99.
England will also rue dropping the only chance which came their way in India’s second innings. Anderson produced an outside edge off Rohit in his second over but Rory Burns failed to pick it up and took evasive action rather than going for the catch.
An undented India at the close of play on Day 2 have put themselves in a position to fight back tomorrow. They will, however, need to ensure that it's not a repeat of the morning of Day 4 in the Headingley Test. As said above, the first hour will be crucial.