After a summer where the ball has hooped round corners, Ben Jones reflects on a day when India’s bowlers showed that they can be brilliant without a cloud in the sky.
India have been on the road for a long time as a Test side. In 2018, they’ve played nine Tests, and have simultaneously looked like a top-class side, whilst not winning many matches. They’re undoubtedly the best team in the world, but they’re not dominating all before them. For a group as talented as this, that’s a frustrating mix.
Much has been made of the quality of their pace attack, and it’s fair – Bumrah, Shami, Ishant and Hardik are as good a seam quartet as India have ever fielded in a Test match. They have each put in match-defining performances this series, and they will all be key if India are to go to Australia and win not just a Test, but a series.
But with that tour in mind, Virat Kohli could do a lot worse in preparing his attack for that series than sitting them down and showing them today’s bowling performance. Then showing them again. And then perhaps showing them again.
Because all of their magic this summer, and before that in South Africa, has been with the ball swinging and seaming around. New ball movement has seen them scythe through top orders like never before, with genuine pace, bounce and fear-factor, but it has undoubtedly been in helpful conditions. The five Tests in this series have been the five Tests with the most swing anywhere in 2018.
However, today at The Oval, the new ball did nothing. India had nowt to get them excited, no sword with which to scythe. They found just 1.08° of swing in the first 20 overs, lower than all but one innings this series; the same for the seam , with just 0.77° of movement. It looked, for the first hour or so, that this was a pitch prepared with one veteran left-hander very much in mind, and that India were finally powerless to stand in the way of a substantial English batting effort.
And so the day progressed accordingly. For the first two hours of play, India were unable to find that bit of lateral movement that would get things moving, and with all the pressure that was on Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings (for very different reasons), there was no chance of them upping the rate.
Yet even when Jennings went, and newly promoted Moeen Ali came to the crease, India managed to keep a lid on things. You didn’t have to look far at around 2:30pm today for people saying that England were batting too slowly. Indeed, after 60 overs England had played 13.5% attacking shots; only four times since the start of 2017 have they attacked less in the first 60 overs of a Test innings. But that wasn’t happening in a vacuum – India were bowling with extraordinary accuracy.
The Indian seamers managed to get 46% of their deliveries on a good line and length today, the most they’ve managed in any Test this year. In the absence of lateral movement, India built pressure through accuracy, through putting the ball in the right spot over and over again.
It wasn’t producing dull cricket either. After lunch, Mohammed Shami bowled one of the finest spells to not collect a wicket in recent memory. He found 16 false shots in 45 deliveries, an astonishing ratio of almost one every three balls, yet somehow a wicket evaded him. In particular, Moeen Ali seemed to be living a charmed life; he played 35 false shots, the most he has played in all but one of his Test innings.
The sense of pressure, the sense of drama was building. Then Alastair Cook chopped on to a Jasprit Bumrah delivery which bounced around 11cm less than one would have expected from a ball on that length. A stroke of luck, perhaps, but one India had deserved. And what greater tribute could England have paid to Alastair Cook than showing quite how much they will struggle without him?
The subsequent spell of eight deliveries, two wickets and one run saw Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root arrive and swiftly depart. Ben Stokes looked solid, before running past the fullest ball Ravi Jadeja bowled to him, yorking himself. After the resistance of the top-order, England’s middle fell away.
For all the excitement that India’s bowling has caused this summer, all the optimism it has caused with the Australian tour in mind, it was the skills they showed today were the ones they will need Down Under. In Australia, the ball doesn’t swing for 80 overs – it swings prodigiously for a while, then things become substantially harder for the seamers. KL Rahul may well eye the pitches with slightly more glee than he has this summer, but the bowlers won’t. But more than any match this year, today will give Indian fans hope that this winter could be when they become a truly great Test team.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.