Perfectly pitched for Liam Plunkett

Picture: AP
Picture: AP
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This has been a coruscating Test match and after the soporific nature of Trent Bridge a much needed boost to cricket this summer. The reason is a sporting pitch and it has shown that challenging cricket is much more interesting than bland runfests.

England will not want to chase in excess of 250 as the pitch breaks up, which means the first session today is crucial for the hosts. Again the match is balanced on a knife edge. Once one side has created a little dominance the match has dramatically swung to the opposition. A proper no-quarter-asked-for-and-none-given contest.

The lead is currently 145. The new ball is due in 17 overs so England must take wickets this morning or else they will be batted out of the game and left to struggle on a wearing pitch.

Oh, the pitch. What joy to have a spicy one.

It was green on the first two days and offered plenty of help for the seamers without punishing the most adept and watchful batters, and yesterday it started to bounce unevenly as the sun had baked it dry, and throughout only those at the top of their respective games have prospered. The Indian spinners will have watched the varying bounce and movement with glee, even as their batsmen were suffering bruises and hits, but despite having an attack that should benefit on the fourth and fifth day India know this is a close match.

That it is so is down mainly to Liam Plunkett. His first work was with the bat in the morning as he flourished and turned his nightwatchman role of Friday evening into his first Test half-century. He played many excellent shots worthy of a lauded batter and with better support from Matt Prior and Stuart Broad could have earned England a bigger lead of nearer a hundred instead of 23. How they might regret that on Monday.

Prior succumbed once more to a short ball, his attempted pull shot going high to Shikhar Darwan running back at slip, and Broad was caught hitting second ball, his first having gone for four. Boldness was a correct ploy but two swipes off your first two balls hints at desperation or over-confidence.

But it was in the evening with two wickets in two balls that Plunkett really ignited this contest. Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay were doing a splendid job but then in the 43rd over Plunkett summoned his furies and hustled Pujara into an injudicious edge. Next ball the talented Virat Kohli left an absolutely beauty that pitched outside off-stump and moved up the slope to clip the top of off-stump. It was a wonder delivery and had England flying into the Indian players, fuelled somewhat by the rather unedifying spat that is still rumbling off-field.

It got better two overs later when Broad had Ajinkya Rahane, the first innings centurion erroneously caught behind off a bouncer. There can be no sympathy for India as they refuse to utilise the DRS Referral technology. Rahane was superb on Thursday in trying circumstances but even he on such good form cannot account for being given out when the ball has clearly struck the arm guard.

This brought MS Dhoni to the crease and he received a furious barrage from the England bowlers. He was struck, refused to yield, was rather clumsy padding up on a couple of occasions and struck a couple of punchy shots to remind all that he can be a most dangerous and thrilling counter-attacker. It was not calm with him at the wicket but he did help Vijay steady India. Vijay, like many an underrated opener, can seemingly go unnoticed but he was resolute in defence and brought up a worthy half-century. He eschewed frills and drama but his studied defiance was crucial to his team. At close of play he had filibustered the England bowlers for 190 balls and added 44 in cahoots with his captain.

Their partnership is pivotal to the game. The quiet technician and the grizzled street fighter are a compelling contrast at the crease.

Wickets have fallen in clusters since Thursday so they need to thwart a refreshed England first up. Indeed if India can bat until mid-afternoon today they will feel they should win but much will depend on the second new ball. England can take it just after midday and will need to and make it count. The risk is it will fly for quick runs but this match is not going to the last knockings of day five so wickets are a must.

This is where India have the advantage when bowling. They have new ball threat with the excellent Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who added two wickets in the morning to finish with six in the innings but also, and this is the difference to England, have a couple of excellent spinners in Vijay and Ravindra Jadeja. They can threaten throughout the whole 80 overs of a ball whereas England attack in bursts and then have to endure spells where containment is the height of ambition.

At least the series has come alive and a sporting pitch has provided the impetus. It has not made for poor cricket, just made those who succeed work hard for it and given the spectators some thrilling sport.