It was a hot, humid afternoon in Chennai, the grandstands at Chepauk were empty, but the atmosphere in the middle looked close and claustrophobic. England were 241 runs ahead, but you would never have guessed it from the way the Indian fielders were buzzing.
Ravi Ashwin had just had Rory Burns caught at slip off the very first ball of the innings, a devilish delivery that drifted in towards his pads, bit, broke back, flicked off the shoulder of his bat, and triggered a first little flush of panic. The wicket begged the question of how many runs England could get – and more importantly, how many they might need, since India made 328 to win at the Gabba just the other week.
In came Dan Lawrence, 23 years old, and on a pair. Three weeks back, Lawrence made 73 and 21 not out on debut against Sri Lanka; since then he has made 3 (caught slip), 2 (caught keeper) and, in the first innings here, 0 (done lbw by a scything bit of reverse swing).
It had been a long time since Lawrence last batted at No 3: he did it a bit in his first couple of seasons for Essex, made 44 runs in six innings and hasn’t been back since. He’s doing it now only because Zak Crawley slipped on a marble floor and bust his wrist, so England had an opening. For a long time the rule was that the team’s best, and steadiest, batsman went in first drop, but in the past few years it feels like it’s become a job no one in the team really wants. In this game there was a case for pushing Joe Root or Ben Stokes, even Ollie Pope, up to do it, but it was left to the rookie.
Lawrence’s jaw was working hard on a piece of gum, and his eyes were wide as he looked around the field. A slip, a short leg, a leg gully. He had Virat Kohli barking instructions in one ear, Rishabh Pant chattering away in the other. For India, the shortest route back into the match was straight through Lawrence – and the way they were acting, they didn’t think he was going to delay them long.
Up at the other end of the pitch, Ashwin was waiting. Lawrence is a good player of spin, he averages in the 60s against the slow bowlers he has faced in first-class cricket, but this was something else again. The world’s best spinner, on his home ground, with a hard new ball in his hand, and a dry, dusty pitch under his feet.
Ashwin started with a carom ball, just to see if Lawrence could pick it, and followed it with a couple of ripping off-breaks – Lawrence missed one, got his bat on the next but the contact was awkward and the ball fell just in front of short leg, the fielders erupted, Ashwin shouted, sighed, smiled.
However this Test turns out, it’s unlikely anyone else will remember much about what happened in the hour Lawrence was at the crease, but you guess it will stay with him for ever. It must have been about the hardest little stretch of batting he’s had to do. He had his feet working, at least, back, across, forward, like a lightweight ducking punches. Ashwin ripped one over the top of off stump, appealed for lbw off a ball that dipped as if there had been some sudden shift of gravity, called for a review of another lbw that hit Lawrence just outside the line.
Lawrence had just about muddled through it when Kohli brought Ishant Sharma into the attack. Sharma was searching for his 300th Test wicket, and he had a good idea where he was going to find it. He had Lawrence lbw with a ball that seamed in and hit him in front, halfway up middle stump, similar to how Jasprit Bumrah got him in the first innings. If there was an analyst left anywhere in international cricket who didn’t know about this little flaw in his technique, they did now. The next question for Lawrence is whether he can fix it, in the same way Dom Sibley shored up his position by learning to play spin bowling these past few weeks.
Lawrence’s innings, 18 off 47 balls, won’t have any great bearing on this match – but in the grand scheme the passage spoke plenty about the challenges that face a young Test cricketer, and about the state of this England team, too. They are an unusual mix of old pros and young kids still feeling their way in the game: Lawrence, Pope, Crawley and Dom Bess are all 23, Dom Sibley is 25 and, after 15 Tests, is the most experienced of the lot.
England’s year isn’t just going to turn on how well Root, Jimmy Anderson and Ben Stokes go, but whether this young group of players in the supporting cast can overcome the myriad challenges of Test cricket, which will follow each other just as quick and irresistibly as Sharma’s pace followed Ashwin’s spin.