Jack Leach has been tipped as England’s potential match-winner on the final day of the first Test against India, after proving he has not been scarred by a barrage of sixes off the bat of Rishabh Pant.
England have been ahead of the game for the vast majority of the series opener in Chennai and head into the fifth morning needing nine wickets to claim victory, with a huge lead of 380 to play with.
The only stage where India have really threatened to flip the momentum came when Pant went on the counter-attack in India’s first innings and smashed Leach for five sixes on his way to 91 – including four in the space of just seven deliveries.
It was the kind of assault that can leave its mark on a bowler but Leach was unfazed when he returned to the attack with figures of nought for 100 on Monday, dismissing Ravichandran Ashwin and Shahbaz Nadeem to help wrap up the tail.
He was then trusted with the new ball as the hosts padded up for the second time and took out Rohit Sharma’s off stump with a handy dose of turn past the outside edge. That left the scoreboard at 39 for one chasing a world record 420.
“I was so pleased Leachy got that wicket tonight, I thought he really deserved that,” said bowling coach Jon Lewis.
“Every day as a cricketer you go out wanting five wickets or a hundred, but that doesn’t often happen.
“You are going to have more bad days than good days as a cricketer and you are going to have to deal with those. Jack showed his character with the way he came back after Pant got after him yesterday.
“He’s bowled an absolutely beauty to get out Rohit – who is obviously a class, class player – and looks a real threat on this pitch. He could walk away with four or five wickets tomorrow and we could win a Test match – I’m pretty sure people won’t be talking about Rishabh Pant’s first-innings runs if he does that.”
Lewis also revealed that Leach had been following team orders when he was taken down by the Indian wicketkeeper, with a hint that they may invite Pant to try his luck in the same way again.
With the volume of runs in the bank, England could afford a few more maximums in pursuit of the key scalp.
“Jack was asked to do a really specific job for the team and I thought Pant’s options were really high risk. Obviously he got more runs than he would have wanted him to, but the percentages were still very much in his favour,” said Lewis.
While England’s decision not to enforce the follow-on was widely expected, their refusal to declare even as their lead stretched past 400 was the cause of fierce external debate.
Even Sir Alastair Cook, remembered as a largely conservative skipper, had predicted on television that Joe Root would give his bowlers more than the 103 overs they were eventually left with after being bowled out for 178.
In the dressing room, the decision to bat on and effectively take an India victory out of the equation made perfect sense.
“It’s obviously first game of the series and whilst you want to get off to a really strong start, you don’t really want to give India a chance to win,” said Lewis.
“They have some fine players and you also want to have attacking fields all day, especially for our spin bowlers. So to get as many runs, to keep the rate high for them, feels like our best chance to win the game.
“We were very comfortable with the amount of overs we wanted to bowl and it obviously gives us a bit of a bite with the second new ball, if required.”
🇮🇳 need 381 runs to win🏴 need nine wickets
An exciting finale awaits as England set India a big target despite R Ashwin's six-wicket haul.#INDvENG report 👇
— ICC (@ICC) February 8, 2021
India paceman Ishant Sharma is confident his side’s “fearless” batting line-up can pull off an unlikely win.
He told Channel 4: “It all depends how we start tomorrow. If we get a good start then I’m sure we can chase this down because we have a batting line-up who are very fearless.
“We are very positive about this, so it’s about the start.”