SOUTHAMPTON. – To think that Sam Curran, man-of-the-match in that humdinging first Test at Edgbaston, was dropped for England’s Trent Bridge defeat for the sake of the team balance.
On what had been shaping up as another ignominious day for England’s batting at the Ageas Bowl, Curran reprised his rescue act in that first match, driving his side towards a serviceable total of 246 by ignoring the match situation and the ineptitude of his senior team-mates.
In reply, India were 19-0.
By the time the former Zimbabwean youth international was last man out for a Test-best 78, bowled on the hoick against R Ashwin with only James Anderson for company, Curran’s efforts had disrupted the dominance of India’s rampant swing-based attack, exceeded the output of England’s entire rejigged top six, and turned a disastrous mid-afternoon scoreline of 86 for 6 into something for England’s own bowlers to rub up against.
India capped their day by calmly negotiating four overs before the close, but with Anderson in particular making the new ball talk as ever, a first-innings dogfight remains a likely scenario.
Much like England’s inexplicable descent into blind panic in this series, having cruised to a 2-0 series lead at Lord’s a fortnight ago, there was little warning of the calamity in store when Joe Root won a useful toss under clear skies and chose to take first use of a blameless surface that both captains agreed looked like the best batting wicket of the series.
And yet, by the time Keaton Jennings – so desperate for runs after his stay of execution from Nottingham – had been bamboozled by Jasprit Bumrah’s lesser-spotted inswinger and evicted for a strokeless four-ball duck, the tone of England’s morning had been set.
India, to their credit, were outstanding and attacking from the outset, harpooning England’s batsmen with aggressive full lengths and an unrelenting command of the swinging Dukes ball that brought to mind the 80-over menace that made England’s 2005 attack so formidable.
Joe Root, promoted to No. 3 and seemingly burdened by the need to be both anchor and enforcer, endured a ghastly 14-ball stay – he survived a stone-dead review for lbw when replays showed Bumrah had overstepped, but had no answer to his first ball from Ishant Sharma, another hooping inswinger that nailed him on the front pad and persuaded him to burn a review out of desperation.
And when Bumrah atoned for his error by serving up a beautifully shaping outswinger that Jonny Bairstow grazed to the keeper, England were 28 for 3 and in very dire straits indeed.
If there was a positive about England’s efforts in the first hour, it was in the discipline and confidence of Alastair Cook, who lined himself up on off stump to counter Bumrah’s javelin-like movement and looked as calm in his defiance as he has appeared all summer.
But then, on 17 from 54 balls (a perfectly acceptable attrition rate in the circumstances) he lined up a limp cut to a wide ball from Hardik Pandya, and scuffed a top-edge to Virat Kohli in the gully. It was the dismissal of a man who had allowed his fabled concentration to waver, another uncharacteristic blip in a flat-lining summer.