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At the Kia Oval, we are heading for a sold-out fifth day with all options on the table. The sun is set to shine and the pitch is flat. England, 77 without loss at stumps, need another 291 from 90 overs. A long shot, but not impossible. India must remain strong favourites, but do not discount the draw, or even the tie.
England will feel grateful to have their head above water at stumps on day four. Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed, their new opening partnership, had batted – largely untroubled – through the final session, providing the sort of calm they had at Headingley.
Yet for much of the day, this was nightmarish stuff for England. Not only did India appear to be batting them out of the game, but they were forcing overs into the legs of tired seamers in the finest weather the series has seen. Jimmy Anderson has not bowled this many overs in an innings since the 2017/18 Ashes. Whatever happens on Monday, he has to be a doubt for the final Test, on his home ground, Old Trafford.
Joe Root clearly did not feel he could trust his vice-captain Moeen Ali to bowl long spells, and not without reason. This innings was Moeen in a nutshell; he picked up the key wicket of Virat Kohli, for the seventh time in Tests. That took him clear into third place on the wicket-taking charts among English spinners, but he also travelled at 4.5 runs per over. Root did not seem to think Craig Overton was worth much of a bowl, either.
England turned first to their weariest bowlers, Anderson and Ollie Robinson. India duly got off to a decent start, with Kohli’s driving looking particularly crisp.
As so often in this Test, it was when Chris Woakes got the ball that England came to life. He trapped Ravi Jadeja lbw with his second ball and Ajinkya Rahane in his second over. It was the second time in his scoreless eight-ball stay that Rahane was given out lbw off Woakes; the vice-captain required a review when triggered shouldering arms.
Supported by Overton, Woakes (whose spell was 6-3-4-2) put the skids on India. Kohli spent 40 minutes on 40, and only added four more before Moeen’s beautiful ball found its way to slip.
With India five down and 213 ahead, this was one of two moments that England felt really in the game. Rishabh Pant, a man who has appeared to be losing faith in his method, was new to the crease. So was Shardul Thakur, who had roistered a rapid half-century in the first innings, but has a first-class average of 16.
England sniffed a chance, but they had other ideas. They were sensible until lunch, but had their fun afterwards. Pant played within himself, edging himself into form, run by run. Again, Thakur was happy to be the aggressor, which suited Pant just fine. Thakur thumped the seamers down the ground, and found Moeen easy pickings. Back came Anderson and Robinson once more.
England were slightly shambolic, with Moeen botching a simple run-out chance – he went for the direct hit when a simple run-in would have done it – when both men had 37. Their final review had been wasted off Moeen’s bowling.
They had shared exactly 100, 60 per cent of them Thakur’s, when the stand ended. Root, angry, brought himself on, and Overton took another fine catch at slip. Pant brought up a half-century of his own, from a very sedate 105 balls, in the following over, only to be immediately dismissed. He dragged himself from the field when sending a sharp caught and bowled back to Moeen, who plucked it smartly.
The lead now was 315. Vast, but Pant’s reaction suggested he felt there was a bit of work to do. Thankfully, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah recognised this too. They had some fun, with Umesh launching two superb sixes. They made it to tea, which forced England’s bowlers into a sixth session in the dirt, but the top order might have felt saved from a very unpleasant mini-session.
The seamers were asked to saddle up again after the break. Woakes had Bumrah caught at mid-on, then Overton – having gone unused in the afternoon session – had Umesh taken at cover, with Moeen the fielder both times.
India had made a formidable 466 in their second innings, asking England to chase 368 in 126 overs. Just 32 of the available 36 were bowled by stumps, and India were not at their best, allowing England to lay a semblance of a platform.
Burns and Hameed are a natural looking pair, and worked well in tandem once more. Only a late flurry of boundaries from Hameed gave him the edge having been neck and neck. Late in the day, India lost a review, with an lbw shout from Mohammed Siraj on Hameed proved to be going over the top. By then, Burns was being troubled by Jadeja bowling into the rough from over the wicket.
Still, he will have been glad it was not the other Ravi, Ashwin.