HYEDRABAD: One of the more thrilling aspects of watching Test cricket in India is experiencing an R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja spell. On a strip with some turn and a degree of variable bounce, they become more potent. On the third morning of the first Test against England, Ashwin had the new ball with 190 runs to play with. Gulp.
On Days One and Two, the English spinners had toiled and grafted on a surface that seldom responded to their silent cries. When Ashwin had it, one may have already imagined the outcomes. Pace. Dip. Spin. Variation. All edges in play. Lots of close in fielders. The ooohhhs and aaahhhs of the 15000 or so who had occupied their seats early doors.
Except, none of that happened on Saturday.
A fever dream unfolded as Bazball took centre-stage on one of the most competitive days of long-form cricket on these shores for many years. Reverse sweeps bisected the man at short third man frequently.
It left the fielder at point boundary to hurl the ball back in from beyond the boundary cushions. Close in fielders went out of fashion. A pacer replaced a spinner multiple times. Several Hail Maries were sent but Ollie Pope was the only one answering prayers.
Rohit Sharma kicked the turf several times as frustration, anger and irritation set in. By the end, Jadeja had conceded over 100 runs at 3.8 runs per over. Ashwin and Axar Patel had gone at over four. The three had conceded a combined 262 runs for four wickets in 62 overs.
As the floodlights took effect, the tourists found themselves 126 runs ahead with four wickets remaining. "These things happen," was the gist of what Paras Mhambrey, bowling coach, said after the day's play.
But these things do not happen against Indian spinners in these conditions. It's only the second time a visiting team has managed to score 200 in a completed third or fourth innings in the post-COVID years.
It's the first time in 21 Tests that a visiting team has hit 200 in both innings. No team since the same opposition in Nagpur in 2012 (completed innings) has managed to cross 300 in the third or the fourth innings.
The main reason for that was Pope whose unbeaten 148 breathed fresh oxygen into their innings following Bumrah's folklore-entering double-wicket spell. Now, the No. 3 has long been thought about as the next Root. But it hasn't always happened for the Ian Bell look-alike.
More so in India.
When he walked in, he had compiled 154 from 354 balls at an average of 15. As he walked back at stumps, he was unbeaten on 148 off 208, and England 316/6 with a 126-run lead.
He had uprooted the existing food chain; the hunted had become the hunter. He started using his feet and trusted his hands as he went down on one knee to play the reverse and cut all three spinners.
Sure, he had some luck—you always need it to survive world-class bowling—but he used it to maximum effect. So it wasn't a surprise to hear Joe Root describe it in the most glowing terms.
"I'm speechless," he said in the post-day press conference.
Out of all the shots he essayed, perhaps one of the most outrageous was a reverse dilscoop. However, he wasn't gambling on blind faith alone. Yes, he had bought a seat at the roulette table but there was a method behind his calculations.
Root, one of the best players of the conventional sweep, opined that the reverse sweep was perhaps a safer shot than the forward defence on strips like these (both Zak Crawley and Ben Stokes were dismissed when they were playing the forward defense).
"It can be if you can play it well," Root said.
"It's hardest when some spin and some don’t. When it’s consistent spin, you can work out when to take it on, and which balls from which line you can take a risk on. The most important thing is you don’t think you are going to miss it at all. Have that mindset of committing to the shot and nailing it for four or one or whatever. He did it exceptionally well. It took until 110 to make a small error when he got dropped (Axar put him down)."
Pope & Co. were so successful at it they set a new record (most runs playing it in a single Test according to Cricviz). Irrespective of whatever happens on Sunday—a point Root made —Bazball has silenced critics.
Many people thought that against Ashwin and Jadeja, it would have no chance; not even a wing and a prayer