Nagpur, day one: England 199-5

India are probably on top after a very interesting first day of cricket. Certainly they have played much better today than we saw for most of the last two Tests; they had a clear plan when bowling and some much sharper fielding kept England tied down. But they do appear to have missed a trick with the selection; their most dangerous bowler all day was Ishant Sharma who bowled quite well at the start of the day in particular. But he is their only seamer and they have four spinners. It is hard to say that it has failed given the position in which England find themselves, but one gets the impression that India might be in an even better position if they had backed their seamers more. They did not even give Sharma the second new ball right away.

England’s score looks worse than it actually is, however. The pitch is very slow and it is very hard to score runs. India had a very defensive field all day and they did an excellent job of keeping England tied down and with the variable bounce on offer it was very dangerous to try to break the shackles. It also meant that it was hard for new batsmen to come in and we saw a couple of collapses because of this. It is actually a very poor Test pitch; there is nothing wrong with turners and there is nothing wrong with giving something to the bowlers in any country, even quite a lot to the bowlers, but this had nothing for the bowlers and nothing for the batsmen. It was just slow and low and will probably get even worse as the match progresses.

But although England’s position looks worse than it is, it is still not a good one. Of the five wickets to go down at least four of them were avoidable. The one that was not was Alastair Cook; he got an absolutely shocking lbw decision on a ball that struck him outside the line of off stump and was actually going even further away from the stumps. It was possibly (possibly not definitely) the worst decision I’ve seen so far in this series and that is saying quite a bit. It is yet another example that DRS, even with its flaws both real and imagined, is preferable to having an umpire standing alone. There was a suggestion that Jonathan Trott should have been out a couple of overs before to the same umpire, but the ball actually struck him just fractionally outside the line of off stump and was correctly given not out. The umpire appears to have ‘made up’ for a decision that he got correct in the first place and it could really hurt England on a pitch that would have suited Cook’s patience.

Of the other dismissals, Nick Compton’s early dismissal is borderline. He played at a ball he could have left, but it was in the corridor of uncertainty and bounced a lot more than the previous delivery. It was good bowling as much as it was bad batting. Jonathan Trott grafted hard for 44 before losing his concentration and his off stump. It was a poor bit of batting, but that is the sort of dismissal that becomes more likely on this pitch. Scoring is so slow that any lapse in concentration is magnified. Kevin Pietersen was out in a similar manner; he grafted past tea before losing his patience and slapping a catch to mid-wicket. It was an innings of the sort of ‘new KP’ we saw in Mumbai and to an extent in Calcutta, the KP that can actually construct an innings by playing sensibly for a time and then upping the rate, finished by a return of the classic impatient Pietersen. It is at least a start though and if Pietersen can continue to bat properly after he leaves India his average will end up closer to where it probably ought to be instead of below fifty as it has been.

Ian Bell’s dismissal was the worst. It wasn’t stupid, but it was careless. He pushed tamely at an utterly innocuous delivery outside off and just pushed it straight into the hands of short extra cover. It was the first ball he had faced from Piyush Chawla, but it wasn’t anything to do with the spin. He didn’t misread the delivery in any way; he actually middled it. It was just lazy and it could have happened to any bowler. It’s that which has really been the problem for Bell recently. He has not played poorly by any stretch; he made runs pretty consistently over the summer and even in this series has not looked in poor form at all. He has got in more often than not this year and whilst he has been unlucky at times not to get a hundred (he was stranded by rain and by England winning) he has also got careless and has got himself out between fifty and a hundred no fewer than four times. He needs to find a way to stop doing this because although he should not be dropped in the near future there is an increasing amount of competition for middle order spots.

It is hard to judge what a good first innings score is on this pitch. As much as England wobbled in the afternoon, they have had two good partnerships: Pietersen and Trott and then Matt Prior and Joe Root have both been much more settled and have accepted that they cannot score quickly. It shows how comfortable the latter pair were that by the end of the day India were trying not to bowl any more overs despite needing to win the Test! In a way it is similar to what we saw at Mumbai when India scraped past three hundred and it looked like a very good score before England easily went past it; we won’t really be able to judge this pitch until India have had a bat. There are no demons in the pitch, but nor are there runs and England do still have some advantages in reserve. Sharma got reverse swing very early today and Anderson will be a threat if he can do the same. The pitch will also probably deteriorate a lot at the match progresses and it may be very hard to bat last. It may become a battle of patience and if that happens I think one will have to back England. But that is a long way off as is England’s desired score of over three hundred. They need Prior and Root to get themselves in tomorrow morning and ideally get enough to render the discussion of three hundred irrelevant.

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