The essence of great Test cricket is ebb and flow: the fine balance between bat and ball, the gripping arm-wrestle that results in those all-too-rare passages when both teams are playing well at the same time. This was very nearly a great day of Test cricket, lacking only the most crucial ingredient of all: a meaningful contest.
By the time stumps were finally drawn at 7.06pm after 93 terrific overs, the third Test had already essentially been dead for two days. England’s worthless batting display on Sunday saw to that, and yet with only form and pride to play for, the resistance of Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes will give them some kernel of comfort as they head to Southampton next week.
Against an inspired and kaleidoscopic Indian bowling attack, coming together with England on 62-4 and the jaws of humiliation wide open, Buttler and Stokes added 169 over the course of four absorbing hours. Buttler’s maiden Test century of 106 in 176 balls was a rich and delicious cocktail of reserve and timing, patience and aggression: the sort of innings he has long been capable of playing, but has produced all too rarely in whites.
With Stokes, who scored an even more abstemious 62 in 187 balls, the pair left and blocked, rode the bounce of Jasprit Bumrah, covered the swing of Mohammed Shami and Hardik Pandya, negotiated the flawless line of Ishant Sharma, smothered the sharp spin of Ravichandran Ashwin, attacking only the bad balls. For England’s faltering top order, the irony of their two most aggressive cricketers giving them a masterclass in defensive batting will not be lost on them.
And if there is a lesson here, it is that great Test cricketers will find a way in any situation. Both Stokes nor Buttler have the potential to be exactly that, and in tough conditions they demonstrated what is possible when you marry pure talent with the right mentality. For Buttler who has frequently doubted his own ability to crack Test cricket, and for Stokes who only last week was flirting with the possibility of jail, these two innings may yet prove – in their own way – quietly pivotal.
The bottom line, nevertheless, is that England are still on course to lose heavily, even as Adil Rashid and Stuart Broad indulged themselves a little as the sun set on Nottingham. They are in this position because their top four have contributed 134 runs between them in eight innings, and as magnificently as India’s seamers bowled here – Sharma was superb in the morning, Bumrah in the evening – a team constantly finding itself 80-4 is really no sort of team at all.
England’s openers are a little like curling stones on the rink: theoretically hefty but deceptively easy to shift. Keaton Jennings will never succeed against high-quality seam bowling until he learns to become more supple at the crease. He’s too flat-footed, too upright, too eager to feel bat on ball, and thus prone to playing at balls he could leave on length, as he did off his fourth ball of the morning.
Alastair Cook’s technique is little changed from his golden years – compact, concise, nuggety – but his judgement outside off-stump is not what it was. Sharma removed him in his second over of the morning, and as he strode off after his fifth failure out of five this series, it was tempting to wonder where he goes next. As he showed in Melbourne and Birmingham, Cook still capitalises on a start like few others in world cricket. But if he hardly ever gets a start, what’s the point?
Joe Root and Ollie Pope both spent around 40 minutes getting themselves in before abruptly deciding they’d had enough hanging around and decided to get stuck in. Root tried to force a lifter from Bumrah off the back foot and edged to KL Rahul at second slip. Four balls later – four balls! – Pope threw his entire life at a wide delivery from Shami, and edged to a delirious Virat Kohli at third slip. Both catches were stunning, exemplars of how India had eased themselves into the game, and now felt totally at one with it.
Indeed, India could have put the match to bed there and then had Rishabh Pant managed to hang on to a sharp one-handed chance off Buttler when he was on only 1. But having been given a life, Buttler scarcely gave another chance thereafter, and as the ball ceased to misbehave quite as often – although Ashwin did get one to rag alarmingly out of the off-side rough – Buttler and Stokes dropped anchor and braced themselves.
Four successive maidens followed that Pant drop. At one stage, Stokes was on 3 off 37 balls. And after almost a couple of hours of patient accumulation, it was Buttler who broke ranks first, freeing his arms through the off-side, crunching Ashwin through the covers, surviving an LBW review, driving past his highest Test score – the 85 on his debut in Southampton that felt like the announcement of a radiant new talent.
A lot of water under the bridge in those four years. But for all his tribulations, Buttler’s ability to decimate convention has remained intact, and no sooner was he nearing his maiden Test century than he was there, moving from 91 to 103 in the space of four balls, three of them clipped powerfully to the square leg boundary. It was only his fifth century in nine years of first-class cricket, and a resounding vindication of Ed Smith’s decision to recall him on the strength of his Twenty20 form alone. He will fail as often as he succeeds in this form of the game. It’s in his nature. But watching this innings, it was hard to credit how anybody could possibly have thought the England team would be stronger without him in it.
And having finally opened his shoulders, there was a certain irony that it was leave that eventually did for him: Bumrah swerving the new ball into his pads, Buttler LBW playing no shot. Jonny Bairstow strode purposefully out to the wicket with his broken finger strapped and padded, and strode purposefully back a minute later having lost his off-stump first ball. When Chris Woakes and Stokes followed in short order, England looked set to fold in a hurry.
That was 241-8, and yet to the surprise of everyone, England endured. Rashid and Broad enjoyed several slices of luck, India took the extra half-hour, Ashwin had an agonisingly close LBW review turned down in the very last over of the day, but to a warm ovation, Rashid’s forward defensive drew down the curtain.
Having looked buried halfway through day two, England have somehow managed to take the game into day five. It may prove scant consolation in the long run. But as India’s fatigued, dissatisfied players dragged themselves off the field, their hopes of a day-off thwarted, it felt like its own tiny triumph.