11 January, Sydney. 19 January, Brisbane. 9 February, Chennai.
For the third time running, India will enter the final day of a Test needing a herculean batting effort. No one needs any reminding of the two erstwhile exploits. Could lightning really strike thrice?
But if the odds were steep enough in the two Australian adventures, here’s the scale of the task awaiting India’s batsmen at Chepauk. There has never been a higher total successfully chased down in the history of Tests. And India haven’t batted 100 overs in the fourth innings of a Test on home soil – which is the other, seemingly more achievable target – since 1979.
Oh, and there’s the little matter of a cracking Chepauk surface (literally, not metaphorically). After 16 wickets in 264 overs over the first three days, day four yielded 15 wickets in 81.2 overs.
All of which points to one rather popping question from Monday’s play: Why did England wait as long as they did to end their third innings?
That, and other notable points of discussion from day four of the first Test between India and England.
Recency bias: Plaguing the world, not just social media
Yes, India’s two most recent Test matches produced two stirring fourth innings performances from their batsmen – 131 overs to survive at the SCG, 97 overs and 329 runs to bring down the Gabbatoir.
Yes, one of the two other Tests running concurrently with this Chennai Test in the subcontinent saw a visiting team (also crippled by absent forces) chase down 395 – and the second saw another visiting team reach 241/3 in pursuit of 370 on the final day before collapsing.
But the only narrative these examples should be influencing are those on social media; you’d imagine the think-tank of an international team is also considering other, arguably more significant data.
Such as the fact that only once in 66 attempts since 2000 has there been a fourth-innings score in excess of 300 in India.
Or the fact that only four of these 66 fourth innings on Indian soil in the 21st century have lasted 100 overs.
Or that India have never batted 100 overs in the fourth innings of a Test at home in the last 41 years.
At the fall of Joe Root’s wicket, with the scoreboard reading 101/5 in 23.5 overs, England’s lead was nearing the 350-mark, with less than 130 overs left in the game. The visitors actually batted out almost another 23 overs – for the addition of 77 runs. The sighting of a declaration, in fact, didn’t seem immediately imminent even as R Ashwin scythed through the lower-order.
Add to this the evident go-slow in the last quarter of their marathon first innings: England, after reaching 450 for the loss of only four wickets in 145 overs, added 128 runs in their last 45 overs.
Now juxtapose that with the fact that despite a rare top and middle-order failure for the hosts, India’s first innings still went on to last 95 overs.
For all you know, the English bowlers might steamroll India on the final day and finish the Test with hours in hand, and Messrs Root and Co could sit in the dressing room through what would have been the final session and have a good laugh at all the pundits – but you don’t play the pundits, you play the percentages.
And if England are to miss out on a victory – especially by any bare margins – there’s surely going to be some regret around that dressing room.
What is up with the overstepping?
India finish the Chennai Test having bowled 27 no-balls in 236.4 overs. Spinners Ashwin and Shahbaz Nadeem were accountable for more than half of those: 14, in 141.4 overs between them.
Nadeem, alone, overstepped nine times in a total of 59 overs. That’s one less than every 40 balls.
It follows a global trend, in the age of cricket in COVID times.
The resumption of international cricket after months of pandemic-forced shutdowns came with a set of new rules, one of which was the decision to have the third-umpire call no-balls instead of the on-field umpires – and the numbers have been dramatically altered since.
From 2016 till July 2020, 5.5 no-balls were being called on average per every Test. Since August 2020, that number has shot up to more than 12 per match (as of 1300 IST on Saturday, the second day of this Test).
Even accounting for the marginal calls that bowlers may have previously been benefiting from, for a spinner to be overstepping as frequently would seem quite unpardonable.
Nadeem was seen working with bowling coach Bharat Arun during the lunch interval on day four – and is probably in for a much longer stint in the nets after the completion of this game.
Ishant 300*: The old war-horse scales a mountainous peak
Kapil Dev. Zaheer Khan. Ishant Sharma.
You know where the first two names rank in Indian cricket folklore. And now, finally, there’s a third.
To get a further sense of the scale of Ishant’s achievement, here’s a list of all Asian fast bowlers with 300 Test wickets: Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Imran Khan, Chaminda Vaas, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma.
Exalted. Extraordinary. Excellent.
And excellent is just what the lanky teenager who famously made Ricky Ponting dance to his tune for eight staggering overs at Perth in 2008 has been in his final coming as a Test fast bowler.
At the end of India’s 2016/17 home season, Ishant had taken 218 wickets in 77 Tests – at an average touching 37, and a strike rate shading 68. Since the start of India’s next home season, in November 2017, he has 82 wickets from 21 Tests – at an average of 20.06, and a strike rate of 43.6.
In this period, no bowler with at least 40 wickets has a better average in Test cricket, and only one (Umesh Yadav) has a better strike rate. That’s right: not Cummins, not Bumrah, not Rabada, not Anderson – no one.
By the end of this series, fitness and rotation permitting, Ishant could find himself in the even-more exclusive territory of 100 Test matches. Only one Indian fast bowler before him has made that club: Kapil Dev.
Thank you, Ishant Sharma!
Sundar: A proper happy-headache in the making
Washington Sundar arrived at his position as India’s 301st Test cricketer, in the most legendary of circumstances of course, as a bowling all-rounder, ostensibly. Nine days into his career, he’s already a fair shout as a batting all-rounder.
Yes, it’s only been nine days; two Tests, and three innings, to be precise. But ‘impact’ is a burgeoning parameter in modern-day cricketing discourse, isn’t it? And beyond the preliminary individual impact evidenced through his 62 and 22 at Brisbane, and 85* at Chennai, there is yet an even more telling showcase of his impact on the team’s batting.
In their five most recent Tests prior to the takedown of Fortress Gabba, all of which had been played across the Trans-Tasman, India’s last four wickets had returned a combined average of 36.75 runs per innings. Not once in eight innings through these five Tests had India’s last four wickets added 50 runs.
At Brisbane, India added 150 runs to their six-down total of 186. At Chennai, India upped their six-down score of 225 by 112 runs.
Sundar’s bowling, apart from the bounce-aided purchase on the first day at the Gabba, is an obvious work-in-progress – although still quite palatable for someone who hadn’t had a first-class outing in more than three years until last month.
The 21-year-old, of course, was always likely to contend with a back-up role to Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – and might not have made the XI for this Test even in Jadeja’s absence, had it not been for Axar Patel’s late injury.
But take a look at his batting – not just the numbers, but also the nuance – and there’s possibly reason to believe that he could, with further honing, be challenging for spots higher up in the order, even with Ashwin and Jadeja in the lineup.
And we haven’t even mentioned that crazy carousel of cracking shots yet, have we? That no-look six off Nathan Lyon. That hook off Pat Cummins. That straight drive off Jofra Archer. That pick-up six off James Anderson.
It’s a catalogue most would happily sign up to possess over the course of a lengthy career.
Happy headaches have been at the core of India’s climb back up the Test cricket ladder over the last six years, and it should please all stakeholders that there’s another one in the mix.