When India last lost a Test at home, Steven Smith was the Australian captain, Joe Root was yet to lead England in a Test, and Virat Kohli had 43 hundreds in international cricket. Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan were still playing for Pakistan, Kyle Abbott, and AB de Villiers were still playing for South Africa, and Jasprit Bumrah was still nearly a year out from his Test debut.
Even that defeat – a 333-run mauling at the hands of Australia on a Pune turner – proved to be quite the aberration: India’s only loss on home soil, indeed, in 34 Tests from 2013 to 2020.
And in response to that pasting in Pune, India unleashed a domination hitherto unseen. Since the start of 2018, India had played eight home Tests – winning six by an innings, one by 10 wickets, and one by 203 runs. In six of those eight games, India’s first innings total was above 470; only twice in 16 innings did India concede more than 300.
It isn’t without reason that beating India in India is considered the biggest challenge in Test cricket today. To stand a chance, you need a lot to go your way – and then you need to play the perfect game.
The toss could be one of those external factors visiting teams dread, but guess what? In their 14-match unbeaten streak at home since Pune 2017, India had actually lost the toss in half the outings.
The availability of players at the hosts’ disposal could be another differential – and there’s no denying that India missed Ravindra Jadeja, everywhere – but then again, this happens to be the same team that conquered Fortress Gabba 20 days ago with half an India ‘B’ side.
Basically, you bring out your A game – and hope.
On that count, England’s victory at Chepauk – the fall of another fortress, a ground where India last lost a Test in 1999 – is truly unbelievable.
Seven of their top-eight batsmen scored at least 30 in the first innings (a first for England in 20 years), all five of their bowlers took crucial wickets, and their fielding was top-notch. This was a marriage of inch-perfect planning, and nailed-on execution.
It began, of course, with that marathon batting effort.
190 overs. There hadn’t been a longer first innings in a Test since 2004. India hadn’t been on the field longer in any innings of a home Test since 2009.
There was Joe Root, extending his Bradmanesque start to this subcontinental sojourn with a methodical marvel of a double century – the first by any visiting batsman in India in over a decade.
But there was also Dom Sibley, whose maiden outing on Indian soil saw him bat more balls than any overseas batsman not called Kallis or Amla on a single day of Test cricket in India since 2006.
And there was Ben Stokes, who provided the mid-innings impetus, that surge so crucial to successful marathons, with his stroke-laden 82.
There was a collective resolve, that saw seven of the 11 batsmen score 30 runs, and eight of the 11 face 50 balls. This, in a country where visiting teams had averaged 19 runs per wicket since the start of 2018, and the average away innings had lasted less than 62 overs.
There was, most tellingly, a calculated assault. England scored 429 runs versus spin – their highest in any Test innings since 1974 – out of which 265 came off the 70 overs bowled by Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar, for the loss of only two wickets.
Then, coming out to bowl on a surface for which the kindest description had been benign, and the more common description lifeless, Jofra Archer – playing his first subcontinental Test – extracted more on the third day than Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah managed over the first two days. Archer’s three-wicket match haul was the lowest among the four pure bowlers in the England camp, but the first two of those were Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill – who had eased to two half-century stands in four innings on much juicier tracks in Australia.
If that gave England hopes of a first-innings lead of a size unimaginable over India in India, it was the pluck, and well-earned luck, of Dom Bess that set them well on their way to that uncharted land. Sure, there was a stunning catch, and a rather fortunate deflection. But another first-timer on Indian shores had managed to bait Cheteshwar Pujara in a manner Nathan Lyon couldn’t over the course of the Australian summer, while simultaneously blunting Rishabh Pant in a way that would’ve turned both Lyon and Bess’ spin-twin Jack Leach green with envy. Oh, and Bess also became the first off-spinner to account for Virat Kohli in a home Test in 38 months.
Leach, on his part, produced an in-game transition to be proud of for ages. The extent of Pant’s destruction of the slow left-armer on the third afternoon – 48 runs from 21 balls, with five sixes – could have deflated many a seasoned campaigner. But after conceding 77 runs from eight overs till the time Pant was in the middle, Leach – who would’ve found some redemption in just taking the catch to account for the Indian dasher – turned his match around, returning figures of 6/104 in the 42 overs he bowled through the rest of the Test. Among those six wickets was the peach to dismiss Rohit Sharma towards the end of day four, and then, arguably most tellingly, the capture of India’s chief-de-Chesistance – Cheteshwar Pujara who fell to a slow left-armer for the first time in 840 deliveries since Steve O’Keefe’s Pune special of 2017.
All this while, one member of the English bowling quartet had been having a quiet outing, not too dissimilar from his fortunes from four years ago. By claiming the last two wickets in India’s first innings, James Anderson had managed to end a run of 69.5 overs without a wicket in India – the man who served as the differentiator in 2012, the last successful visit by anyone to this part of the world, had fallen rather flat in 2016.
But, seriously, did anyone have any doubts? This is a man whose haul of Test wickets after turning 30 alone is bettered by only 25 bowlers in the history of the format. After turning 35, Anderson has scalped 131 wickets in 33 Tests at an average of 20.22; in this period, only three bowlers have more wickets, and only one has taken 50 wickets at a better average.
So, let’s ask again: Did anyone have any doubts? If they did, find that over. Watch it. Watch it over and over again. You won’t want to stop. James Anderson clearly doesn’t.
And if it were up to them, England certainly wouldn’t. They have, in a delightful defiance of odds, done an India on India. Ironically, it might have made their task ahead that much more challenging.
If at all the giant was caught sleeping, it is up from its slumber now. But in a year that’s already making a mockery of fortresses and the forces within them, might it be too late?
Strap in. We’re set for another cracker.