After finding himself on the receiving end of a rather personal pummelling from Rishabh Pant on the third day in Chennai, Jack Leach strolled off the field at the end of the fourth feeling much better about life.
Along with two wickets in the morning, the left-arm spinner’s removal of Rohit Sharma in the final hour of play had eased some of the worries presented by that manhandling. More importantly, it gave Joe Root a vital breakthrough to begin his side’s hunt for 10 Indian wickets and a 1-0 series lead.
It was a beauty too, Leach making full use of the crease from around the wicket to angle the ball into Sharma before it spat off the Mars-red surface, evaded the bat and rattled off-stump. India, chasing an unlikely world record of 420 to win, closed on 39 for one after 13 overs, with a day of 15 wickets having highlighted the scale of their task ahead.
Root, whose 100th Test has produced enough material to fill a sizeable chunk of next year’s Wisden, will have felt a relieved man here also. The England captain had earlier found himself in that unenviable position of trying to work out the best equation to pose the hosts in the fourth innings, while knowing millions of would-be captains were watching on impatiently.
As it was, Root held firm and no extra time was bought by pulling up the drawbridge early. Having secured a first-innings lead of 241 runs before lunch with India 337 all out, England proceeded to be bowled out for 178 themselves as Ravichandran Ashwin claimed his 28th Test five-wicket haul with six for 61.
Timing a declaration was never going to be simple. Pant’s heroics during the historic run chase in Brisbane last month may have been a factor for the England brains trust, so too the left-hander’s 88-ball 91 in the first innings during which Leach was launched into the stands five times.
By the same token, India’s 131-over rearguard in Sydney the match before, and a highly resolute 85 not out from the No 7 Washington Sundar earlier in the day, should also have been relevant: this is not an India team that will yield easily over the course of this series.
In the Channel 4 studio Alastair Cook was expressing some regret about the first Test of the 2016 series in Rajkot, where he ploughed on for a century on the final day, set India an overly cautious 310 to win in 49 overs and saw them survive six down at the close; fear of defeat had trumped a rare chance to go 1-0 up.
Back then the pitch was flat, while here in the third innings – England’s second – it proved hard to bat with any positive intent given the turn on offer and a fine exhibition of reverse-swing bowling from Ishant Sharma, who claimed his 300th Test wicket, and the slippery slingshot that is Jasprit Bumrah.
Only Root, removed by the latter lbw, was able to break free with a 32-ball 40 that was brimming with sweeps and took his match tally to 258 runs. Whatever the outcome on the final day, the captain will be able to reflect on a quite stunning return to form during the first half of this six-Test winter in the subcontinent.
As well as looking to get more wear into the pitch – something that led to England being officially warned by the umpires when Dan Lawrence ran down the middle of it during his innings of 18 – other reasons for batting on appeared to be Root’s desire to keep the ball relatively hard for the spinners going into the final morning, thus forcing India to start against it twice.
There was some logic here. Ashwin had got the new SG ball to bounce and turn more dramatically, becoming the first spinner in more than 100 years to strike with the first ball of an innings when Rory Burns fenced to slip. Ashwin’s removal of Dom Sibley after lunch, caught at leg slip in a similar vein to Virat Kohli’s dismissal the day before, was another example.
And then there was Leach, who had earlier been instrumental in snuffing out India’s first-innings resistance with the second new ball by ending a typically resolute 31 from Ashwin, caught by a diving Jos Buttler off the shoulder of the bat, and then Shahbaz Nadeem for a duck with a more classical edge to slip.
While Dom Bess struggled to follow up his impressive four-wicket haul on the third day with much control – once again underlining the patience the off-spinner will require – and England lacked a touch of urgency later on in the day, Root’s men were impressively clinical in the field during India’s first outing with the bat.
As well as wrapping up the innings and handing Jimmy Anderson a second wicket of the morning – a fabulous one-handed pouch from Stokes, diving to his right at slip – it made it a rare case of all 10 wickets falling to catches, a feat England last achieved during their memorable victory in Cape Town last winter.
It also left Sundar high and dry just 15 runs short runs of a maiden Test century. The left-hander had once again demonstrated the promise witnessed during his rise from net bowler to lower-order impediment in Australia last month. By stretching out India’s first innings to 95.5 overs, the 21-year-old also offered some hope that 103 could be survived second time around.