|Fourth Test, Ahmedabad (day one):|
|England 205: Stokes 55; Axar 4-68|
|India 24-1: Anderson 1-0|
|England are 181 runs ahead|
England’s batsmen failed again on the first day of the final Test against India in Ahmedabad.
On a blameless pitch, entirely different from the third-Test surface that made run-scoring so difficult, England were bundled out for 205 after winning the toss.
Ben Stokes made 55 and the recalled Dan Lawrence 46, but the tourists fluctuated between repeating old mistakes and reckless over-aggression.
India were excellent with the ball, left-arm spinner Axar Patel once more at the fore with 4-68.
The home side lost Shubnam Gill to the second ball of their reply, only for Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara to guide them to 24-1 at the close.
With India holding a 2-1 series lead, avoiding defeat will see them extend an unbeaten home record that stretches back to 2012 and also book a World Test Championship final against New Zealand.
Different pitch, different team, same outcome
England’s victory in the first Test had been rendered a distant memory by their batting failures against the India spinners in the next two – particularly the third, a 10-wicket defeat on a snakepit of a pitch at the same Ahmedabad ground.
Expecting more of the same, England bolstered their batting and spin bowling by including Lawrence and Dom Bess at the expense of pace bowlers Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, who was later confirmed to have been ruled out with a recurrence of his elbow problem.
For their approach to work, England ideally needed to bat into the second day, allowing the pitch to deteriorate in order to provide greater assistance to their spin-heavy attack.
Captain Joe Root called on his batsmen to be “full of confidence” and to play in a “controlled but fearless” manner. Instead, some carried their scars into this final Test, while others took the fight too far.
India’s first innings will provide context to England’s effort. It could be that the tourists have enough runs to be competitive and they should have the advantage of bowling last.
However, the early signs from the pitch are that India will have the opportunity to bat themselves to a series victory.
England’s scrambled approach
How England’s day would unfold was foreshadowed by the dismissals of openers Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley, both gone in the space of 11 Axar deliveries after the spinner was introduced in the sixth over of the match.
Like so many before him, Sibley fell playing for non-existent turn, bowled through the gate. Crawley took it to the other extreme, running down the pitch and horribly miscuing to mid-off.
Even those who had moderate success would eventually fall in either timid or irresponsible fashion.
Stokes began his innings by exchanging words with India captain Virat Kohli. He went on to display solid defence and powerful sweeps before missing a straight one to be lbw to Washington Sundar.
Lawrence, batting at number seven, showed composure and was just beginning to dominate the bowling when he needlessly ran at Axar and was stumped by a distance.
Promising starts from Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope were cut short with shades of bad fortune. Bairstow was marginally lbw to Mohammed Siraj and Pope inside-edged on to both pads to be caught at short leg off Ravichandran Ashwin.
Root, pinned on the crease to one that Siraj got to nip back, was one of the few not complicit in his downfall. Given the nature of the surface, the England display was far from good enough.
India make their point
India have been quick to fight back against media criticism of the pitches for the second and third Tests, with Kohli and Ashwin particularly vocal.
Here, with only a minimal amount of early assistance for the spinners, the hosts were still able prey on the weaknesses of the England line-up.
Siraj bowled with pace, finding swing and bounce. Axar was typically accurate, Ashwin improved as the day progressed and Sundar found more turn than either of his more celebrated colleagues.
The way they shared their workload – Siraj and fellow fast bowler Ishant Sharma bowled a third of the overs – might suggest England are a paceman light.
India’s biggest setback came when Shubnam Gill fell to the second delivery of their reply, lbw to an inswinger from Anderson, who bowled five successive maidens.
Stokes has been suffering from a stomach bug but was still able to share the new ball. He gave way to Jack Leach after only two overs as Rohit and Pujara made comfortable progress to the close.
‘We’re disappointed we’re still not batting’
England all-rounder Ben Stokes: “We’ll look back and be disappointed we’re still not batting. We’re more than capable of scoring at least 300 on that pitch. It’s frustrating, but we can’t dwell on it too much. Overall, it’s a much better wicket than the last time we played here.”
Former England captain Michael Vaughan on The Cricket Social: “This has been my concern with this England team for a while. They get worse against quality opposition over the course of a series. They should have batted the full 90 overs and been about 250-5 on that pitch. They’ve missed a big opportunity.”