ENGLAND have a dominant lead of 237 for the final day of this Test Match and series and should secure a much-needed win for both captain Alastair Cook and manager Peter Moores – but it is the bowling on the first day that has allowed such a confident position.
They forced a three-day victory at Old Trafford last week and ravaged India for 148 on Friday. The batters simply had to amass enough of a lead, something they achieved as a collective. It was however, courtesy of another sporting pitch with plenty for the bowlers to exploit, plenty of hard work. Exactly as Test cricket should be.
This final Test of the series has been one for the bowlers and that has made it much more interesting. Indeed one of the themes of the series has been the joy and challenge in the cricket when the pitches have helped the bowlers rather than the dire, somnambulistic featherbed of Trent Bridge.
Every run at The Oval has been gouged in Stakhanovite fashion. There were few flamboyant fripperies or indulgences, instead batters worked and grafted to survive and possibly thrive as the ball darted off the pitch. Such conditions suit many of the England top order and all the top three played valuable innings. Alastair Cook, still in need of dominant scores and contributions, played neatly for 79 but when a big hundred was begging, finally was caught at first slip. Rarely will he edge three times to the same position within eight overs and survive till the third catch so he should be furious at not capitalising.
Gary Ballance showed more development as a number three but he is more Jonathan Trott in style than the elegant and aesthetic David Gower and should also be disappointed at being dismissed when set for a ‘daddy’ score and Sam Robson, the first dismissed, should be increasingly concerned at his place in the side. He reached 37 but never really appeared settled. Opening batsman suffer low scores, that is part of the job, but they have to look secure when in and Robson is still too shaky to really instil confidence in the rest of the batting order.
They did though ensure England did not collapse to the new ball like India the day before and that primarily was their job. They did it well. Once the scores were level at lunch the whole task was for the rest to get as big a lead as possible.
It was not though the easy pickings that many envisaged. India are bowed but not broken. Ishant Sharma showed why he was so sorely missed in the previous two matches as he nipped the ball off the pitch and looked a likely wicket-taker. He has endured a curious career having gone from prodigy in 2007-8 to disregarded and disenchanted a couple of years later. He is a good bowler though and with better support would prove a good leader of an attack. Varun Aaron was swift, swung the ball and deserved his wickets, maybe more but was a tad expensive and poor old Bhuvneshwar Kumar just looked exhausted. He has shouldered much of the burden of five Test matches in six weeks and could do with a good rest. The pace and nip that made him so threatening in the first two matches has slowly reduced. It is a shame as he has been one of the players of the series. These are a kernel of a good seam attack but they are likely to be flogged where they need to be cherished and protected.
Ravichandran Ashwin offered the spin and picked up two wickets. He is a combative cricketer and he gave England nothing. It meant little though as England extended their lead throughout the afternoon. Even when wickets fell the runs were coming. So Ian Bell failed, Moeen Ali stuttered and India celebrated but Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Chris Jordan punished and took England away. All pushed India hard in the field although they enjoyed good fortune but the intent was consistently positive and rather than bat for the close they increased the run rate.
Root was superb, again, and is close to his fifth Test century. After a terrible winter he has returned a chastened character without losing his natural spark. In each match of this series he has registered a half-century but it is his composure at number five that has impressed the most. He gauges the mood of an innings well knowing when to entrench and when to attack and press momentum.
His technique still looks a little short of a top order batter but his temperament and cricketing intelligence make him an ideal number five or six. His partnerships with Jos Buttler could become vital for England in the next few years.
Buttler is an aggressor and opponents will be desperate to get him out early as once settled he scores at a very quick rate.
His 45 was perfect as it assisted Root after a flurry of wickets had threatened England’s dominance but also maintained a scoring rate that placed pressure on the bowlers and opposing captain. The game certainly moves forward when he is at the crease.
This has been a cathartic series for England and after the humiliation on the Ashes and the defeat to Sri Lanka earlier in the summer a much -needed one.
There will be much tougher challenges to come though.