England backed their bowlers to finish India off on day five of the first Test in Chennai, after opting not to buy extra time in the game with a declaration.
Joe Root decided not to intervene in his side’s second innings, allowing them to bat into the final hour and pile up a lead of 419 – leaving a world record chase in their wake – in a bid to take an unlikely India win out of the equation.
Jack Leach’s dismissal of Rohit Sharma gave the tourists a further shot in the arm and nine further breakthroughs are needed in the final three sessions to cap what would be a memorable away success. India closed on 39 for one, with 90 overs of battle left.
Root had earlier declined to enforce the follow-on despite dismissing the hosts for 337, a deficit of 241 runs, preferring to give his bowlers a rest and stretch the advantage.
Nine wickets needed for victory on the final day of the first Test 🏴🏏
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) February 8, 2021
He went on to top-score with 40 as his side were bowled out for 178, setting up a final equation that England would have only dreamed of when they touched down.
And Root’s apparent conservatism was always likely to cause some debate, the fact that the record chase in India came against England at this ground cannot be ignored.
In 2008, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men scored 387 for the loss of only four wickets, while Virat Kohli’s side are just a couple of weeks on from their audacious pursuit against Australia at The Gabba.
India had started the day on 257 for six, with Washington Sundar and Ravichandran Ashwin turning an already frustrating stand of 32 from the previous evening into a substantial one worth 80.
It took the introduction of Leach to end their fun, with the left-armer ignoring bruising figures of nought for 100 to dismiss both Ashwin and Shahbaz Nadeem. Washington had batted beautifully for 85 not out but simply ran out of road.
James Anderson wrapped things up, bouncing out Ishant Sharma before Ben Stokes held a stunning catch at slip to remove Jasprit Bumrah.
Despite easily clearing the 200-run threshold, Root was never likely to send India back in to bat, preferring to let his bowlers have a break from the heat.
That meant Rory Burns and Dom Sibley faced the thankless prospect of two overs before lunch, a slim window of opportunity that Ashwin gleefully accepted. He clipped Burns’ outside edge with the first ball of the innings and wheeled away in joy as Cheteshwar Pujara held on at slip.
There was no shortage of incentives to score quickly but the reality was harder, with Dan Lawrence and Sibley restricted to 34 between them in 84 balls.
Ashwin set Sibley up nicely, drawing him forward outside off stump and drawing an inside edge that pinged to leg-slip. Lawrence lasted for another 20 minutes before Ishant had him lbw, in the process becoming just the third Indian seamer to claim 300 Test scalps.
The arrival of Root heralded an instant shift in tone as he wasted no time indulging his party piece.
Twice in his first four balls he stooped to sweep Nadeem for four and Ashwin was soon treated similarly as the England captain defied him to find a solution. When the latter adjusted his line, Root simply swapped his hands and reverse swept yet another boundary.
By now there were two matches unfolding simultaneously, with Root dominating one and India making good headway in the other. Even the arrival of Stokes could not alter that, one muscular blow for four his only real intervention before he nicked Ashwin out of the rough to make it 71 for four.
Root’s one-man mission to speed things along ended with a slice of reverse swing and an lbw for Bumrah, who had been held back until the 22nd over but swiftly made his presence felt.
The question of the declaration loomed over the rest of the innings, with Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler stretching the lead to 360 at tea.
Pope started the final session by reverse sweeping ambitiously out of the rough, a tactic that soon got the better of him as he picked out midwicket.
England still clear favourites but if you had said to India 2 days ago you have 9 wickets to Bat out the game on day 5 they would have ripped your hands off … #INDvENG
— Michael Vaughan (@MichaelVaughan) February 8, 2021
With all eyes on the balcony, Root opted to not intervene as Buttler was stumped for 24 and Ashwin mopped up the tail to finish with six for 61.
Despite their position of dominance, there was now some pressure on England to make inroads with the new ball.
Rohit is not the kind of opener built to dig deep and defend and he played to type here, pulling Archer for four and six successively before exiting for an inconsequential 12.
Root’s decision to use Leach first up instead of Anderson paid dividends, with the Somerset man turning one past the outside edge and into the top of off stump.
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