What changed in eight days between Lord’s and Headingley? How did Joe Root’s England dramatically turn from a team that for consecutive Test matches had been out-batted, out-bowled and out-fielded into one that skittled India for 78 and then amassed 432, thus setting up a series-levelling innings-and-76-run win in Leeds before lunch on day four?
How did Virat Kohli’s Indian cricket team go from their in-your-face, win-at-all-costs, we’re-not-going-to-back-down template at Lord’s to surrendering so meekly? It could have been worse, yes, after India’s first innings ended in 40.4 overs on day one, but when you lose by an innings before lunch on day four, during another damning collapse of eight wickets for 53 runs, after dominating two Test matches, tough questions will be asked and tough calls must be taken with a little over four days to go for the fourth Test at The Oval.
This series has shades of 2014, when India drew at Trent Bridge, won at Lord’s and then lost the next three Tests. How scarred India are from this massive loss at Headingley remains to be seen, but there is little turnover time before the next match.
Several questions that have been asked over the course of the past three and a half days and will continue to be posed in the aftermath of India’s defeat at Headingley, a venue where no Indian cricket team had played a Test for 19 years. Reputations were at stake coming into this third Test, and only Cheteshwar Pujara has emerged with his in place, after he scored a very positive 91 in the second innings, never mind that it ended on the fourth morning in a moment of madness.
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It was a flat pitch, with a little bit of juice now and then, on which England made 432 and India 78 and 278, during which they lost 8/53 to the second new ball. England came into this match with questions over many players, and made both tactical and forced changes. They outperformed India in every department.
Key to England’s turnaround were, of course, rolling India over for 78 after they were forced to bowl and Root getting the rare cushion of walking out to bat with his team having more than 150 on the board thanks to fifties to fifties to Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed and a solid comeback innings from Dawid Malan, batting at No 3. This was, the stats confirm, the first time since 2015 that Root walked to the crease with as many runs showing on the scoreboard. Unlike at Trent Bridge, where his century lifted England out of hole, and at Lord’s, where his unbeaten 180 took the hosts into the lead, at Leeds Root had the chance to bat even more freely and truly crush India’s spirits.
The toss. Kohli opted to bat because, well, it is the thing to do. Few will point to that being decisive in India’s fate, because who knew that India would be all out for 78 just 40.4 overs? Root chose to bowl at Lord’s and that proved pivotal in defeat after India bowled out England for 183, so maybe that was on Kohli’s mind. But more logically, there was no overhead cloud cover on the morning of day one at Headingley, India’s openers were in form and the team was running on the fumes of a stirring Test win.
This wasn’t a freak, once-in-a-generation 36 all out occurrence. It was poor batting. Yes, James Anderson bowled a new-ball spell of sublime accuracy and skill, but how many of India’s batsmen can say they got unplayable deliveries? KL Rahul went back to 2018 and played a booming drive to Anderson early, falling to the clear trap of two inswingers followed by one shaping away fractionally. This was not the obdurate Rahul from Trent Bridge and Lord’s. It was a Rahul overly confident from good, hard-earned runs in those two Tests who decided one moment, “hey, you know what? I can drive this Anderson fellow in such form”. India were 1/1.
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Pujara did what he has been doing for a while now, except he didn’t face 80 balls. Stuck to his crease, unsure once again of what to do, he felt for a ball from Anderson that moved late and nicked off, once again. India were 4/2.
Out strode Kohli, aware that since the start of 2020 he was averaging under 24. He began well, very well in fact, with firm drives nailed to the right and left of mid-off in an indication that things were going purringly well. But then, after being tied down by consecutive full-length deliveries from Anderson, he went for a drive down the ground and nicked off. India were 21/3. None of these wickets owed to a devious pitch or rip-roaring deliveries. This was the pressure of extremely accurate bowling from Anderson, who had a plan: to get the ball full and exploit the moisture underfoot. This only a man with the vault of experience that Anderson has can do. In contrast, none of India’s bowlers had played at Headingley before.
The rot was set. Ajinkya Rahane pushed outside off stump to Ollie Robinson when he could have left well enough alone. Rohit Sharma’s 105-ball 19 ended up a waste because he was undone by three short deliveries, tamely pulling the third to a square mid-on. Rishabh Pant flashed outside off and nicked. All six wickets were down to split-second decisions from India’s batsmen. It was a consummately professional bowling performance from England’s quicks, no doubt, but can any of India’s top six point to exceptional deliveries? Therein lies the difference, and indeed where the Test was lost.
Before this match started, Kohli was reminded that none in this squad had ever played Test cricket at Headingley. As is his style, India’s captain remained unmoved by the storied venue’s reputation as a ground where big moments happen. “I’m not an individual who likes to attach too much importance to things that are on the outside for us, it’s just a Test match to be played against England, be it any stadium, anywhere in India or in England,” he said. “What’s happened here, what hasn’t … it’s something we are not focused on because all of our energies are just focused on what we want to do as a team over the next five days.”
You can plan all you want, with the best of data analysts, but there is no denying that when you show up at a venue where your country’s last Test was in 2002, something is bound to go awry. Even in this age of professionalism and endless practice. And that is what transpired for India, both when they batted after Kohli won the toss and then, more starkly, when they bowled to England.
Look at Craig Overton, England’s fourth seamer for this Test. He was given the ball after the 20th over of India’s first innings, and immediately hit consistent lengths. The dot balls turned into maiden overs, the pressure got to India’s batsmen and Overton, only playing this Test because of injury to Mark Wood, finished with three wickets. India’s bowlers could have learned a thing or three from how well Overton stuck to his plans on that Headingley track and offered robust support to Anderson.
Instead, the weight of 78 all out bore heavily on India’s minds over the remainder of the Headingley Test. Ishant Sharma, he of 103 Tests worth of experience, was given the new ball after that chastening experience on the opening morning. Unlike Anderson, who chose run up the famed Headingley slope – okay, so it has been flattened in recent years – instead of down from the Western Terrace End as so many fast bowlers have done with success there, Ishant opted for the more traditional route and struggled. He really struggled. His opening over consisted of nine balls, and after three ginger overs Ishant was taken off.
Whenever he came back for further spells, Ishant looked off. The ball release was slipping consistently, the run-up was stuttering and the speeds way down. The 22 overs he bowled on days one and two without a maiden are the longest any opening bowler from any team has gone on English soil since 2002. Ishant has never in his Test career been a bowler to charge in and run through a side. He is a holding bowler, capable on his best days and even good ones to keep a lid on runs, sustain the pressure and, on days like in Galle and Perth in 2008, Wellington in 2014, Birmingham in 2018 and Lord’s in 2021, produce lovely wicket-taking deliveries to remove well-set batsmen. But when, after claiming over 300 Test wickets, Ishant bowls like he has at Headingley, you cannot dismiss it as a one bad day. Something was terribly amiss with Ishant.
Mohammed Shami picked himself up with the second new ball and, tellingly, got more swing and seam than all three of his pace-bowling team-mates on day two in Leeds. The result was the wickets of Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler in quick success and five overall to India in the final session of day two. Jasprit Bumrah too kept his head up and got the vital scalp of Root for his third century of the series, a glorious home effort of 121 that left India bereft of ideas. Though they lost five wickets in that last session on day two, England added 125 runs to end the day 345 runs ahead of India.
Facing the impossible task of batting out over eight sessions to save the Test, India’s batsmen found themselves facing an England attack which suddenly found swing again. This is due in tiny part to the cloud cover that emerged on the third afternoon, but more because of how well England’s quicks bowled. In particular, their release positions were spectacular and they again went for the fuller lengths, which India’s quartet was not able to do consistently enough. It was very smart bowling versus some very ordinary bowling. Not much else.
That India took the match into the fourth morning is creditable, but it does not mask the bad decision-making their batsmen made on day one, particularly, and on Saturday, as well as some lacklustre bowling. Changes are imminent for The Oval. Ishant has probably played his last Test this series. Pujara has underlined his worth and Rahane, being the vice-captain, is unlikely to be dropped after a poor Test because it was three innings ago that he made a vital half-century at Lord’s. The real batting concern is Pant, who has yet to make a noticeable score in the series and who is constantly flailing outside off stump. Dropping Pant and picking Wriddhiman Saha would be a massive tactical move, which India probably will not make.
The series, ladies and gentlemen, is wide open. How wide, we cannot at this stage ascertain, but the manner in which Root’s England cricket team has bounced back the Lord’s defeat to pummel India underlines their reputation as a team to beat and the fact that India have problems. But yes, despite this loss the series is 1-1 with two to play, and there is every reason that India can find their mojo at The Oval and Old Trafford.