Ben Jones analyses a day where India refused to succumb to England’s pressure.
When you think of India’s win in Australia this winter, two scenes leap to mind. One, the sight of Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin, both injured and set to play no further part in the series, blocking and taking hits as they got over the line with a draw in Sydney. The other, more glory soaked image, is Rishabh Pant’s final day heroics at the Gabba, driving India to one of the most unlikely chases in Test cricket history.
Those are the days that are remembered, the days that t-shirts and memes are made of, the ones which are cited as high points and greatest memories. And that’s quite right. But on a truer level, away victories – that rare commodity in modern Test cricket – aren’t made from days such as those. They are made from days like today, in London.
England won the toss, and put India into bat. It’s not a strategy that’s worked well for Joe Root – indeed, as captain it’s led to defeat more often than any other result – but on this occasion, it didn’t feel outrageous. Skies were grey, James Anderson was fit, clichés were present. Virat Kohli agreed that, had he been given the chance, he’d have done the same.
Then KL Rahul, and Rohit Sharma, took England apart. At the start of the day, the hosts had a 34% chance of victory according to WinViz. As they trudged off this evening that had sunk to 7%, and almost all of that was due to the work of the Indian openers. A first wicket stand of 126 was the highest ever at Lord’s after being inserted, Rahul and Rohit responding to England’s declaration of intent by navigating all threat and danger with aplomb.
In the first session, temperance was the order of the day. Rohit, swaggering white ball star now in possession of the best batting average for any Test opener in history, was restrained enough to play just 11% attacking shots; for Rahul, a man of not dissimilar reputation, was playing just 5%. As James Anderson and Ollie Robinson hammered away on a good length, with 57% of their early deliveries in that zone – a figure unmatched in all but one home Test since records began – but India resisted. With simple, classical techniques, they left outside off and defended solidly when that wasn’t an option. In tough conditions, they kept it simple.
When the chance to counter came, Rohit was dismissive in the way he dealt with Sam Curran, batting almost 40cm further down the track against him, refusing to let his medium pace shape pin him down. He took the left-armer for 35 (48), and dispatched Wood similarly for 22 (21). He was the assertive half of the partnership, outsourcing his Expected Runs (what our model suggests the average batsman would have scored facing his deliveries) by 19. That bought control at the other end, and allowed Rahul to play at his own tempo.
Indeed, Rahul’s innings was an outstanding exercise in patience gradually melting into aggression. His first 50 runs took 137 balls, the second taking 75, and showcased both the best of ‘old’ Rahul – the style and panache of his strokeplay – with resolve so obviously added from the 2018 tour. Then, when faced with a delivery in the channel, Rahul would leave the ball 32% of the time; this year, that’s flown up to 33%. But in all seriousness, the way that Rahul has left, pulling the bat late inside the line, indicates a more cautious approach, a greater willingness to take a backwards step, which transcends the raw numbers. More than half of his runs came in the ‘V’ through point, a willingness to go ‘with’ the swing which yet again displays a pragmatism previously not seen in Rahul’s game.
According to our Expected Wickets model, the deliveries England bowled today would – had they been bowled to an average Test team – have brought a score of 244-9. The fact that India outperformed expectations in terms of both runs and wickets is testament to the quality of the individuals involved, and the extent of their dominance.
Without doubt, they did get some favourable fortune. Of the 28 false shots they played in the morning session, 21 were play and misses. Perhaps some of those were questionable recordings of balls left late inside the line, but even so – on average, a play and miss is as likely as an edge, and India were nowhere close to that figure. Soft hands saved them on the occasion when the short side of the bat was found, and to an extent you ‘make’ your own luck. But to an extent you don’t. It’s out of your control, and having firmly squashed beneath Fortune’s Wheel in 2018, India are well and truly deserving of a break.
There was movement all day long. An average of 2.3 degrees lateral movement (seam and swing combined) is the second most for any Day 1 at Lord’s in the last 10 Tests here. PitchViz uses ball-tracking data to assess conditions, giving it a rating out of 10 – the higher the rating, the harder for batting. Today was rated 6.4, making it the second toughest Day 1 of a Lord’s Test since the start of 2015, and while that doesn’t account for the fact India’s horror ‘opening day’ in 2018 was technically Day 2, it still reflects the difficulty India were faced with. It also slightly vindicates Root’s decision – if the aim was to get the best of conditions, then he succeeded. The captain can only do so much.
While spin was never going to be the greatest threat today – spinners have averaged over 60 in the last five Lord’s Tests – India dealt with Moeen Ali very nicely. England’s recalled off spinner wasn’t enormously threatening, but was very accurate, with 52% of his deliveries pitching on a good length, the third most for any innings in his career and a surprising rejoinder to those who thought adapting post-Hundred might be beyond him. Rohit in particular was keen to try and hit those good balls to the rope, stepping down with his clean technique and eyeing long on at every moment. It was controlled aggression, but aggression nonetheless.
In terms of the broader significance of this performance, the context wasn’t tough to find. In 2018, India were faced with similar (albeit harder) conditions as they came out to bat at Lord’s, after a rain interrupted opening two days. They succumbed to an almost unprecedented level of swing and seam, and in that session, the Test – and series – was all but done. India were in effect 2-0 down after five innings of the series, with three to play. The tour would have required one of the great comebacks to be in anything other than a frustrating missed opportunity.
As BBC statistician Andy Zaltzman noted, in Test history there have been 47 occasions when England have stuck the opposition in at home, and today was the first time that opposition has reached 250 only two wickets down. This was a level of kickback against the pressure of being inserted that English fans have never seen on home shores – we’ll leave Nasser at Brisbane in a separate category, for good reason.
And yet, it shouldn’t really have been a surprise. In recent times, England have grown used to their bowling being enough to win them games. A helpful batch of Dukes balls, spicy pitches, a tasty stretch of flinty weather – normally, that’s been enough to take its toll on touring sides across four, five Tests. But the last time a mature, proven, world-leading side arrived in England for the marquee series of the summer, South Africa came away with a series victory, and saw off a legendary captain. The circumstances of the series against New Zealand earlier this year were highly unusual, but the pattern remains – when the best sides come to England, at the right time in their cycle, they tend to do well. England is different, but it’s not special.
We head back to Lord’s tomorrow, with the game still up for grabs. India could very feasibly still collapse for below 400, a total which while still demanding for England to match, would not reflect the complete control India have exerted on the opening day. But for India, the fact that this test has been passed does reflect their progress as a side, and restates the unavoidable fact that, on this tour, anything less than victory – perhaps even victory in style – represents enormous underachievement.