England bewitched by India with Shardul Thakur meriting acclaim

Forget about operas and fat ladies singing, you know a Test is over when India’s captain starts conducting. It happened here 24 minute, five overs and two wickets after lunch on the final day, shortly after Ollie Pope’s stumps had been rearranged by Jasprit Bumrah. First a few overhead claps, then Virat Kohli extended his arms to full width and swayed them gently up and down, like an albatross in flight. Not an inappropriate bird, England might have thought, for Kohli to be impersonating.

The pocket of the JM Finn stand that has been overwhelmingly populated by India’s blue shirts throughout the Test responded immediately and vocally. It was on. Four-and-not-quite-a-half days of perfectly poised cricket and suddenly, in the space of a few minutes, the scales tilt.

India still needed to take six more wickets, but the dominoes had started to fall. There have been times this summer when England have been bewildered, bedraggled, benighted; here they were bewitched. Statistically the second session here reads like a humiliation – England lost six wickets for 62 runs in 25.1 overs on a flat pitch – but they know well enough what one of those tastes like, and this was not it.

This was the third Test defeat of England’s summer, but surely the inquest here will be a lot briefer than after the previous two. For those with short memories, the darkest moment of the second game against New Zealand came on the fourth and final morning, the haplessness of the home team’s efforts so extreme that Edgbaston erupted in laughter as they were bowled out for 122. At Lord’s in the second game of this series the home side lost their heads and then their wickets on a chaotic final day after which Joe Root blamed his own poor decision-making.

This match did illuminate some areas of genuine concern, particularly in the field where they will remember a succession of dropped catches in the cordon and the grisly failure to run out Rishabh Pant on the fourth day, which revealed a lack of either calmness or focus under pressure in both Moeen Ali and Haseeb Hameed and reprieved a batsman who for a moment had all but given up.

There was some poor decision-making with the bat, most memorably by those same two players: Moeen admitted that in the first innings “we had India down a little bit then I tried to hit a six and got out, and it brought them back in”, while on the final day, with England needing cool heads in the late summer heat, Hameed’s call for a non-existent single led to Dawid Malan’s dismissal and accelerated England’s route to ruin.

But the story when England lose is not always one of English failure, and this was an occasion not for blame but for acclaim; for Rohit Sharma’s batting on the third day – on what became an extremely friendly wicket no one else even came particularly close to a hundred – for Shardul Thakur’s two half-centuries from No8, frustrating as they were for England’s weary bowlers, and more than anything for the bowling of Bumrah on the final afternoon, a spell which completely transfigured the match.

Whatever your allegiance, the only appropriate reaction to, byvoorbeeld, the inswinging yorker that inflicted upon Jonny Bairstow a fourth Test duck of this calendar year surely must have been exhilaration. It was a rare skill breathtakingly executed, but it was more than that. The way cricket balls are manufactured, the way they can be nursed to shine on one side more than the other, the way leather scuffs when pounded repeatedly into the hard ground, the way those roughened edges catch the air in flight, the fact the maximum permitted length of a cricket bat is such that there must always be a gap beneath it – the sport had been constructed, its laws and tools honed over generations, as if it had all only been to make that moment possible. A person who could not appreciate the beauty of that delivery cannot appreciate sport. “I think you’ve got to look to find ways of getting better, but you’ve got to be realistic about things and understand that was world-class bowling,” said Root.

As at Lord’s England came into the final day of a Test hoping for victory and ended it defeated, with aching bodies and sagging spirits. But that it took until the final session of the final day for an England team deprived for various reasons of Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Stuart Broad to be beaten by a superior side who even then needed key players to fly extremely close to perfection might even give them hope ahead of Friday’s final fixture. And if they need true inspiration, wel, that Bumrah yorker is probably available on YouTube.

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