India have lost more Tests at Lord’s than at any other venue, but it will take a formidable bowling performance by England on the fourth morning for them to lose this one. They lead by 145 with six wickets remaining, guided there by a serious-minded opener who met the sultriest, most wearing day that London can offer by blocking his way to contentment in a sweater.
M Vijay’s share of India’s 169 for 4 was 59 not out in 190 balls and four-and-three-quarter hours, an innings of immense watchfulness which burst into life only rarely: a loft down the ground against Moeen Ali; an uncertain, uppish extra-cover drive in the over he reached his fifty which left James Anderson recoiling in disappointment. Just as he contemplated playing more freely after tea, India lost three wickets for five runs in 19 balls. He knew his lot then: he had to confine himself to survival.
What run chase would give England a 50% chance of chasing successfully on this pitch? Perhaps 235, 250 at most? India, after all, do lack a specialist spinner. The pitch has retained its pace; strikingly green on the opening day, it is now strikingly dry. It looked a haven for batting on a somnolent afternoon, but England’s bowlers had their dander up as wickets fell after tea and Vijay and Dhoni, one understated, one batting with the passive aggression of somebody strutting the mean streets at midnight, needed all their skill to survive. A couple of Dhoni’s walkabouts in his hour-plus at the crease were individualistic to say the least.
Life looked ominous for England at 118 for 1. There was less swing and seam than at any time during the match. Spectators donned emergency headwear – newspapers made pirate hats, towels and six-hit cards that were unlikely to be needed for their prime purpose – and watched with creeping resignation. One lbw appeal by Stuart Broad – a big inside nick by Cheteshwar Pujara – had a bit of a pout about it.
Then Liam Plunkett, who had been down on pace throughout the match, with a tight hamstring offered by way of explanation, removed Pujara and Virat Kohli in successive balls. Pujara, who had been regally composed in making 43, reached defensively for a wide one and edged to the keeper.
Plunkett’s next ball, again of goodish length, was a virtual replica – Kohli’s first-ball leave-alone had logic on its side, but Plunkett brought the ball back up the slope to strike top of off.
As there will be in a series lacking DRS, there was also an umpiring howler, uncorrected. Bruce Oxenford has not had a good series – he is beginning to resemble a plant by DRS supporters – and there has been nothing to save him. Ajinkya Rahane, India’s first-innings century maker, was rapped on the arm guard by a short, hostile delivery, Matt Prior sprinted down the legside to hold a good catch and his appeal was upheld.
The afternoon had less to commend it. Little happened, not that this concerned India who were edging towards a position of authority. Shikhar Dhawan played within himself – he still made 31 in 45 balls – then got out to his first firecracker shot. Ben Stokes dropped short, Dhawan cocked his front leg, leant onto his back foot and rasped the ball through backward point only for Joe Root to plunge to his right and hold an excellent two-handed catch. Having observed a desultory bit of after-you between Root and Gary Ballance in his previous over – a routine not in Yorkshire’s training manual – Stokes had reason to be pleasantly surprised.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar had sustained India with another productive bowling display on the third morning, continuing an excellent series with two more wickets as England’s lead was restricted to a paltry 24 runs. After winning such an influential toss, the lead must have felt like the worst prize in the Village Hall raffle, the one that you sheepishly realise after winning that you have donated at least twice before.
That England did gain a lead was due to a maiden Test fifty by Plunkett. He came in as a nightwatchman on the second evening, but he did not look remotely out of place, possessing a dominant presence that few lower-order batsmen can muster as he finished unbeaten on 55.
Bhuvneshwar returned 6 for 82, so becoming the first Indian player to take five wickets in successive Tests in England.
England, who resumed on 219 for 6, added another 100 runs in 19.5 overs. Matt Prior and Plunkett, were both out to remedy their sub-standard first-day performances with gloves and ball respectively. A dangerous stand was broken by Mohammed Shami. Prior pulled a short ball which did not rise markedly high, but he still got a top edge and as the ball swirled high over a pursuing slip cordon it was Dhawan who outpaced the rest, Dhoni included, to pull off a magnificent catch.
After making a terrible hash of his nightwatchman’s stint at Headingley, when he was outfoxed by Rangana Herath, Plunkett took the chance to flex his muscles. Around him, though, contributions were lacking. When Stokes was cleaned up, on the walk, by Bhuvneshwar, it continued a horrendous run in England colours since late January. He has made 18 runs in nine attempts in all competitions, with five ducks and an average of two. He is a poor starter, but it is a staggering lapse since he shot to prominence at international level with a rumbustious maiden Test century in Perth.
Broad has long consigned himself to a role of late-order hitter. This two-ball affair was hard to justify. He carved his first ball, from Bhuvneshwar, behind point for four, sought a repeat against his next ball and edged to Dhawan at slip.
Anderson adopted a similar attacking policy. A mistimed lofted drive off Bhuvneshwar took England into the lead, but a reverse sweep against his off-field adversary, Ravindra Jadeja, which flew off the glove to first slip, ended England’s innings. Anderson dashed off for a rub down, just as well as it meant he did not catch sight of Jadeja’s smile. The odds – perhaps 55:45 in India’s favour – suggest Jadeja may be smiling again by Monday.