The first day of the fourth test at Nagpur was one of the most painstaking and painful witnessed in a long time. After a full day of cricket, 97 overs to be exact, England could only crawl to 199/5, a run-rate of 2.05 runs per over; this in an age when four runs an over is much closer to the norm. To think that a batsman as forceful and as gifted as Kevin Pietersen could be kept to a strike rate of 38.82 shows extent of the difficulty that the batsmen faced in pushing the pace. His career strike rate is 63.49.
To a man, those familiar the playing surface expressed surprise at the pronounced cracks that were present prior to the start of play, something they had never seen before at the Vidarbha Cricket association Stadium. And their prediction that batsmen would have a hard time negotiating the tricky conditions was evident from the first few overs, when some deliveries even bounced for a second time before hitting the wicketkeeper’s glove. The delivery that accounted for Nick Compton, for instance, kissed the edge of his bat at around chest height, and yet was taken close to Dhoni’s ankle.
The low, though slightly inconsistent bounce meant that slip and close-to-the-wicket fielders were surplus to requirements, and Dhoni must have regretted going into the game with only one pacer when he saw that Ishant Sharma was the one posing the most threat to the English batsmen. The lanky fast bowler picked up the first two wickets to fall, though the LBW verdict against the Indian nemesis this series, England captain Alastair Cook, might have been questionable. The enquiry against Jonathan Trott that was denied earlier by umpire Kumar Dharmasena had seemed significantly closer.
It is clear that this will not be a high-scoring game. If this first day is anything to go by, runs will have to be meticulously eked out by every player. This surface will only get worse as cracks get wider, the bounce becomes even more inconsistent and more turn becomes available to the spinners. It couldtherefore be the case that the toss in this game might turn out to be more consequential than any of the previous three.
Normally, the bowling team would be satisfied with their day’s work if they captured five wickets while restricting the opposition to 199 runs. But with the impressive debutant, Joe Root, and the fiercely competitive Matt Prior at the crease, England has a chance to add a few more valuable runs on the second day. And it will not be easy for the Indian batsmen when the time comes for them to reply to England’s first innings total, especially since the visitors have the advantage of two seamers in their attack. India will also have to bat last on a surface that promises to become more and more treacherous as time goes on.
One got the feeling that the hosts did not know where to turn coming into this last game. They had tried the raging turner at Mumbai and it backfired. Given a better batting wicket at Kolkata they still lost, and the stories that have been circulating in the face of the two overwhelming defeats hints that a certain level of despair might have set in.
It will require a herculean effort for India to win this game, and even then that would be despite mistakes with selection and misfortune with the toss. Coming into this game with four spinners, after have lost with three on a viciously spinning Wankhede Stadium surface seems like a defiant shake of the fist at common sense. A second fast bowler would have been much more beneficial than an inconsistent Piyush Chawla. India might have already wished they had chosen differently.