England on course for Third Test win but there’s a riddle in the middle to solve

·3-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

England are, of course, overwhelmingly likely to win the Third Test here. This morning, after they were bowled out for 432, a first-innings lead of 354, CricViz’s win predictor gave India just a one per cent chance of victory .

But when Dawid Malan was dismissed by the ball before tea yesterday, England were 220 ahead and had the chance to make this more than just a defeat for India. They had the chance to make it a soul-crushing defeat that stays with them for the rest of the tour (these final three Tests are back-to-back-to-back).

And, looking at England’s middle order, you would have said that they had the perfect tools to inflict such pain. The scoreboard meant the pressure was low, and they were batting on what Malan described as “a very good wicket”.

That gruesome session never quite happened. After tea, England continued to score runs (125 in 35 overs) but India were buoyed by regular wickets that stilted the batting side. Instead of returning today to bat into the afternoon, asking India’s bowlers to strap on the boots yet again, Craig Overton and Ollie Robinson were seeing if they could hoy some bonus runs.

They managed nine, before Overton was lbw to Mohammed Shami and Robinson bowled slogging Jasprit Bumrah for England’s 40th duck of the year. The mercy was that James Anderson was required to face just one ball before he got bowling. India’s openers looked set to survive the rest of the session until Jonny Bairstow took a magnificent catch in the slips off Overton to dismiss KL Rahul on the stroke of lunch.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

India, to their credit, did not allow the wheels to fall off entirely yesterday. While some of their fielding was laughably bad, Virat Kohli took a fine catch to get Bairstow at first slip. Ishant struggled with the ball, Mohammed Siraj was way off his best, and Ravi Jadeja appears injured. But Shami was superb, while Bumrah went at just two an over and found a pearler to extract Joe Root for 121. Even pearlers often are sometimes not good enough to get Root right now.

But it was also because England’s middle order were a little wasteful. Bairstow looked superb before leaving extremely frustrated to be dismissed for 29 (he scored 59 across two innings at each of Trent Bridge and Lord’s). Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali and Sam Curran all sent the ball with unerring accuracy to the only fielder who threatened their stroke.

There has long been a sense that Bairstow and Buttler are the Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard of England’s Test team. Two players of similar age and role, who have never quite managed to be fit happily into the same team, yet are both too talented to be left out for long.

Bairstow’s latest return to Test cricket has been a promising one, and includes four partnerships worth more than 50 with Root. His technique looks more secure, but a big score has eluded him.

Buttler’s Test career has been defined by periods of peculiar passivity, and the worry is he might be drifting into another. Buttler’s place in the side is secure; his stock has never been higher than when he was rested for five Tests earlier this year after a stellar 12 months. But uncertainty abounds. Buttler is among the likeliest players to sit out the Ashes, and the impending arrival of his second child could see him miss one of the Tests next month.

England have not been a functioning batting order for a long while. But we have become so used to the gallivanting middle order bailing out those above them, it was odd that when the top order worked — this was the first time the top four had all made fifties since 2013 — worked well, the hitters misfired. Fortunately, something has to go badly wrong for it to matter from here.

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