There will be a fifth day of the first India v England Test. At the start of today’s play I did not think there would be and halfway through today’s play I though there definitely not be a fifth day. But Alastair Cook has played an innings of legend. That’s not an exaggeration; he is 168 not out over night having spent a mammoth eight hours and 22 minutes at the crease so far and having been on the field for all of the first two days. During the course of today he became the first player to ever score a hundred in his first three innings as Test captain and also passed the English record for longest innings following-on. There is no way to overemphasise his innings; he has kept England alive in this Test when they really have no right to be. He can now also draw serious comparison to Mike Atherton and the epic ten hour 43 minute defiance at Johannesburg; there is still another two and some hours to go to match that and India will be a lot fresher in the morning, but the scale is comparable and we will have to see how close he can come.
But an Atherton-esque innings needs a Jack Russell to partner him and Matt Prior has filled that role. Prior came in with England 199-5 after Ian Bell and Samit Patel had gone to successive deliveries and took very little time to get settled in. The only time he really looked nervy was when tea was approaching and he suddenly started trying to sweep every single delivery. But before and after that he showed not only good composure, but a good mix of attack and defence. He kept the scoreboard ticking over without looking troubled whilst his captain was immovable at the other end. Like with Cook and Compton last night it was exactly how England should play and by the time stumps came India were clearly tired and even a bit desperate.
It was a great fightback by England, but of course to fight back they have to have been behind and the first half of the day was, whilst not nearly as bad as the first half of any of the other days, still bad enough that they were 199-5. Nick Compton, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell all got out to good deliveries and all had actually looked okay before then. Bell in particular had been timing the ball beautifully and was much more relaxed than in his brief first stay at the crease. There has been, and will still be, some suggestion that Bell should not get his place in the XI back for the third Test and whilst part of that depends on how Jonny Bairstow (presumably) does as his replacement I think it is a bit harsh on the whole.
To drop Bell now would be tantamount to dropping him for one absolutely terrible decision and if that was England’s philosophy then there would have been no need to reintegrate Kevin Pietersen as he would have been out of the side long ago. Pietersen provided a reminder of that today as well as he tried to sweep a ball of Pragyan Ojha from outside off. He missed and was bowled for only two. It was the second time that Pietersen had got out to Ojha in the Test and the second time he did so to a terrible shot. As much as he swears that he has no problems against left-arm spin, the fact that he so often gets out playing stupid shots to them suggests otherwise.
Poor Samit Patel though was neither out to a good ball (though it wasn’t a bad one) or a stupid shot; he was given out lbw to a ball that he had inside edged onto his pad. It was the second poor decision to go against Patel in this Test and it means that he will look like he fared a lot worse than he did. It is also another example of the importance of DRS. It’s all well and good to say that decisions ‘even out’ (though they certainly don’t even out reliably enough for that to be a good argument against the DRS), but they don’t even out for individual batsmen. What will be recorded for posterity is that Patel scored ten and nought; the fact that he was not out both times will be largely forgot and the fact that Cook and Prior were both reprieved will be of no help to him when arguing about his place in the side.
India are still strong favourites to win. England are only five down, but India will be refreshed tomorrow and England are effectively still 10-5 in the second innings. If the first wicket goes down appreciably before lunch then it will be a long road for England. They won’t write this Test off, of course, but assuming they do go 0-1 down they can still take a tremendous amount of confidence from this second innings. The England from last winter batted in the first innings, but so far in the second England have been utterly competent. Cook and Prior may have saved them, but it is all the top order together who have kept Ravi Ashwin to figures of 0-104 and the spinners as a group to 2-232 from 91 overs. Those sort of figures would have been unfathomable in the UAE. On a fourth day pitch England were never going to go out and score 300-3, but what they have done, Pietersen aside, is bat competently and correctly and they have done as much as any other side would reasonably expect. They can go into the Mumbai Test knowing that they can play spin.
And they also achieved a bit of a bragging rights milestone when they went to 301-5: it was more than India ever made in England in 2011. India’s top score in that series was 300 all out in the first innings at the Oval. England can now truthfully say that they played spin in India better than India played seam in England. I don’t think anyone would have guessed that at teatime yesterday!