LONDON: After putting up a first-innings total of 400, and supplementing that with the wicket of KL Rahul before tea on the second day, England were having fun at Wankhede stadium again. Their total, in fact, was exactly the same as that in 2006. A left-handed, South African-born opening batsman had made a century then too, and set up a famous victory. India, trailing by 338 runs, have a task on their hands to prevent this Test from reaching a similar conclusion. Scoreboard pressure is a living thing in India. It breathes down the neck of opposition batsmen and lifts the bowler’s spirits even when there is nothing in the pitch. The one in Mumbai, though, offered plenty of turn and bounce to the spinners so England’s total looked excellent. The question, though, was if Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid had the quality and the consistency required to win Test matches. At first, that did not seem the case. They tended to push the ball through quickly, which works well on slow pitches, but was unnecessary here. Then, in the 14th over, Moeen looped one up for the cover drive. A little bit before that, Alastair Cook pulled the fielder out of that region. Rahul couldn’t resist the temptation. He went for the shot, the ball dipped on him, burst through the gap between bat and pad and bowled him.
Moments like those would likely happen often in this Test for the surface has pace. The spinners willing to be slow through the air and give the ball enough flight can expect wickets. But England have only two of them in their ranks and India would still back themselves to upset them. M Vijay did so when he tonked Rashid for a four and a six in the third over after England had made the breakthrough and Cheteshwar Pujara was dancing down the track for his second ball. The match was superbly set up. England are ahead, of course, and Jos Buttler’s 76 off 137 balls was pivotal. Early on, he looked unsure against spin and was springing out of his crease without minding the length of the ball. He was able to put the times he was beaten behind him quickly, though. His one-day style – nudging balls through midwicket, dabbing them behind point and reverse-sweeping them too – came in handy as he batted with the tail. Eventually, he grew assured enough to pick Ashwin’s carrom balls and even manipulate the field to marshall the strike. Jake Ball, in at No. 10, kept getting better with time, so much that he thumped Bhuvneshwar Kumar to the cover boundary immediately after India took the second new ball in the 122nd over. He stole 54 runs off 92 balls in partnership with Buttler and pushed England’s total above 350. No team has ever lost at Wankhede going past that mark in the first innings.
That’s because of the danger that lurks in the pitch. Rashid faced a ball that was speared into middle and leg by Ravindra Jadeja, and beat his outside edge. Another one, also meant to dart away, held its line and knocked the off stump over as the batsman shouldered arms. India would, therefore, be disappointed that their spinners could string only 12 maidens despite bowling 106.1 overs. R Ashwin picked up his second five-wicket haul of the series, and 23rd overall. He had Ben Stokes caught behind in the third over of the day, although it stirred some DRS debate because at the time the ball seemed to deviate off the edge, the bat had been touching the ground as well. It was because of this doubt that umpire Bruce Oxenford ruled against the appeal. Shamshuddin – who continued as stand-in third umpire because Marais Erasmus was required on the field again with Paul Reiffel sidelined after suffering a concussion – overturned the decision. It appeared to be the correct call, though, for there was a visible deflection as ball passed the bat. The only reason it became a talking point was because the evidence that swayed Shamshuddin came from Ultra Edge, which may have picked up the sound of bat hitting ground. Amid the drama, however, Ashwin had his 47th wicket in 2016, the most by a spinner in India in a calendar year, going past Erapalli Prasanna’s record that had stood since 1969. He bowled 44 overs for his 6 for 112 and led India off the field.