A year without India playing an international match at home. The last time that happened, India were holders of both the World Cup and the World Championship of Cricket. Of the 22 men that took the field in Chennai on Friday, James Anderson was the only one who had been born.
And the action on the park, too, was a bit of a throwback to the 1980s, as England began their daunting quest to become the first visiting team to win a Test series in India in eight years with a controlled outing on a rather flat Chepauk surface.
Joe Root led from the front, following a successful call at the toss, with his third century in as many matches to mark his 100th Test appearance in style, to take England to a healthy 263/3 at stumps — a score that might have looked mightier still if not for the final-over dismissal of Dom Sibley (87) to Jasprit Bumrah, who finally got a Test match on home soil.
Highlights from the opening day of the four-Test series between India and England, which will go on to decide New Zealand’s opposition at the final of the inaugural World Test Championship later this year.
Root 2021: Unstoppable, unflappable, unleashed
At the start of 2021, Joe Root, in a career spanning 97 Tests, had never scored hundreds in successive matches. Five innings into the year, at the start of England’s six-game subcontinental sojourn, he’s hit three in as many Tests.
In the history of Test cricket, only seven non-Asian batsmen had managed to make centuries in three consecutive matches in Asia before Root — Everton Weekes, Garfield Sobers, Ken Barrington (the only man with four), Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, and Alastair Cook. That’s an elite list, if there ever was one. Joe Root of 2021, early days as it may be, is an elite batsman.
If the two games in Sri Lanka were the warm-up to the main event, the English captain aced his preparations: 426 runs in four innings, with 228 in the first Test and 186 in the second.
The starring act on the opening day of the Indian campaign furthers that astonishing run; Root has now faced more balls in five innings in 2021 than he did in eight Tests through 2020.
To the previously unaware, Root stood out for his staggering play against spin in the 2-0 triumph in Sri Lanka, sweeping, steering and smashing his way to 381 runs at an average of 190.50 and a strike rate touching 70. Particularly excellent was his dismantling of Lasith Embuldeniya, of whom he took 200 undefeated runs from in only 247 balls; remove Root, and the left-arm spinner’s series figures read 15/215 in 77.1 overs.
That the sweep was going to be his weapon of choice was no secret, and he did accrue 26 of his 128 runs on day one at Chennai from that shot, stamping his authority on the Indian spinners like he did on the Lankans. Despite being more watchful while facing R Ashwin, Root took 26 runs from the 38 balls delivered to him by the Indian ace. Ashwin’s counterparts Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar, meanwhile, posed scant challenge to England’s number four, as he dispatched them for a combined 70 runs off just 81 balls – with 11 of his 15 boundaries coming off the bowling of the two inexperienced members of India’s bowling attack.
To those who have kept a close eye on Root prior to 2021, none of this should come as a surprise; this is, after all, a man who averaged 46.07 in Asia and 53.09 in India even before his recent exploits.
The big difference, though, is that forever-dangling conversion rate, which has, for long, been the factor cited in placing Root a notch below his fellow contemporary batting beasts Smith, Kohli and Williamson.
He had begun England’s previous tour to India, in 2016, with a century too — but none of his four subsequent half-centuries, one in each remaining Test, were converted into three figures. Something about this Root 2021 version suggests he could be in for a major course correction on this visit. And that’s going to keep the Indian management thinking.
Sibley continues England’s 21st century legacy in India
Touring India is acknowledged, almost universally, as the most daunting challenge going around in world cricket right now. And for openers in particular, this has been a place of nightmares in recent times.
It had been nearly four years since a visiting opening pair added 50 runs or survived 12 overs in a Test in India. So when Rory Burns and Dom Sibley put up 63 on the board, while lasting 23 overs, they were already on rare ground — especially keeping in mind that four English opening stands combined on the recent Sri Lankan visit tallied 34 runs in 15.3 overs.
It took an utter brain-fade on the part of Burns to break their association, but Sibley stayed solid. In the process, he maintained a proud English tradition on their visits to these shores.
From Cook, over and over again — be it his debut series in 2006 (which was shared 1-1), to his Herculean act in the 2012 victory, or even during the 4-0 defeat in 2016 — to Andrew Strauss to Nick Compton to even newcomers Hasib Hameed and Keaton Jennings the last time around, England’s opening batsmen have held their own in India — in the process putting them in distinct territory among touring parties to India since the turn of the century.
All told, English openers had averaged 46.33 in 14 Tests in India since 2005; the next best-performing set of visiting openers in this time-period are Australia — at a distant 33.25.
Sibley came within touching distance of registering the tenth century by an England opener in India in the last 15 years, before being trapped by a still-firing Bumrah in the last over of the day. For perspective, openers from all other visiting teams combined have also registered nine hundreds in this period.
286 balls. Nearly 50 overs. That is a marathon effort — indeed, only twice since 2006 has an overseas batsman faced more balls on a single day of Test cricket in India. And the two gentlemen who have achieved that distinction are called Kallis and Amla.
As much as he might rue the missed century, Sibley will sleep a well-earned night’s sleep (hopefully without the disturbance of cramps), for he met the primary purpose — batting time, and keeping the coast clear for the more destructive bats lower down the order.
Nadeem, Sundar, and perfectly-planned exploitation
If you’re trying to take the ‘toughest challenge in Test cricket’ head-on, you seek inspired performances from act one. Sibley and Root’s partnership — the first double-century stand for any visiting pair in India since Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott at Nagpur in 2012, in what was Root’s Test debut — was just that galvanising tonic for England on the opening day at Chepauk.
Quality batting is an art layered with multiple attributes — skill, technique, application — rolled together. Another essential requirement is sizing your opponent.
In great likelihood, the makeup of India’s fourth and fifth bowlers would have been different if it weren’t for an eleventh-hour injury — you’d think India had seen enough of that in Australia!
One would imagine that Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav were the likeliest candidates to partner Ashwin, if India were set on fielding three spinners in the absence of Ravindra Jadeja. Patel’s forced absence, therefore, took two factors out of play for India — batting cover at number seven, as well as the orthodox left-arm threat, as made particularly evident by Embuldeniya’s heroics against the English batting lineup last month.
So there was no other way of arriving at that twin requirement outside of fielding Washington Sundar and Shahbaz Nadeem, both one-match-old each in the Test arena.
Sundar has never been a conventional spin bowler, and was always going to be wanting for a lack of bounce; Nadeem, too, is not a big turner of the ball, and a candidate to go after in the absence of purchase.
That’s exactly what Sibley and Root pounced on, extremely methodically.
In the first 12 overs after lunch, which came shortly after the quick loss of Burns and Dan Lawrence, England only added 18 runs to their first session score of 67/2. These 12 overs were shared between India’s three senior bowlers — Bumrah, Ishant and Ashwin.
But the sighting of Nadeem and Sundar — in particular when bowling in tandem — was met with abandon by Sibley and Root, and it reflected on the scorecard.
The two inexperienced spinners had two passages of play where they bowled together. The first, from overs 40 to 49, right after that frugal period post-lunch, saw England add 35 runs. The second, a longer spell just before the second new ball came into play, from overs 67 to 78, was even more productive — England cashing in to score 57 runs in just 12 overs.
All told, Nadeem and Sundar bowled 32 wicketless overs on day one, and leaked 126 runs — just a shade under four runs per over.
It was as classic a case of sizing your opponent as you’re likely to see all series.
No life in the pitch, no seam on the ball
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that extreme. But if you caught on to a post-match conversation on Cricbuzz, you would’ve heard Harsha Bhogle likening it to former England captain Michael Vaughan’s dish of choice on his visits to India — a mild mushroom risotto. That should speak volumes, even if you don’t possess culinary interests.
The lack of carry was a regular sight from as early as the second session itself; enough for Rohit Sharma to call for a helmet and stand at an advanced first-slip, in front of Rishabh Pant. If that’s the case on the first day, there might well be cause for concern in either camp.
Another distinct factor seen on the opening day was the battering of the seam on the redesigned SG ball being used for this series. Halfway into its existence, as early as around the 40th over, the seam looked as though it had been devoured by a hungry dog in search of a bone.
The disfiguring of the ball, coupled with the flatness of the track, suggests we might be in for a long contest, potentially without a result. But let’s not read too much into it till both sides have had a go. And let’s not forget the last time there was a drawn game on Indian soil, without any weather disruption coming into the picture, was the Ranchi Test against Australia, back in March 2017.