A moment of poor judgment followed by a spark of brilliance. The first led to opener Rory Burns’s dismissal, after needlessly attempting a reverse sweep. The second saw Dan Lawrence, promoted to No. 3, dismissed for a duck. It presented India the chance to take control of the first day of the opening Test against England in Chennai on Friday.
Ravichandran Ashwin’s lucky break to remove Burns and Jasprit Bumrah’s first strike in his maiden home Test to claim Lawrence with an incoming delivery before lunch could not peg back England as resolute skipper Joe Root, who celebrated his 100th Test with an unbeaten century and opener Dom Sibley stood tall on a pitch that lacked any sting.
The pair’s assured execution against India’s bowlers did force Virat Kohli and the think tank into frequent and long huddles to keep altering the strategy. A 200-run third-wicket partnership saw England finish the day on a solid 263/3. Had Sibley not fallen leg before to a Bumrah yorker on the last ball of the day, the visitors would have gone back to their team hotel fully satisfied.
That Root had got into the groove in sub-continental conditions was evident from his form in the preceding Test series against Sri Lanka, where he scored 228 and 186. On Friday, he continued in the same vein, notching up a century for the third Test in a row, his fifth century against India and 20th overall.
Last night the guys actually put (together) a little surprise for me and got some videos of past players, friends, family, and Ben in particular. They said some really kind words. And then the way we have started the series today, it could not have gone any better, Root said after the day’s play.
I feel I am in good form. I have to make sure I cash in on it. Over the course of my career I have not always gone on to make big scores, so doing that currently is very pleasing. The challenge keeps getting big hundreds.
On the verge of lunch, the dismissals of Burns and Lawrence had left England in a tricky situation at 63/2. Kohli had five bowlers in his arsenal and three of them—Bumrah, Ashwin, and Ishant Sharma looked as if they were just a delivery away from making inroads. The situation demanded that England’s batting lynchpin dig in and he responded in style.
In the preceding two Tests in Galle, Root had brought out the sweep shot without hesitation to counter the spin of Lasith Embuldeniya and Dilruwan Perera. On Friday, he did not employ the shot till the 58th ball he faced.
Ashwin sniffed a chance post the Burns dismissal and kept varying his speed. On a MA Chidambaram strip that had little for the bowlers, the Chennai bowler got the ball to drift and even extracted some bounce. Root though stayed patient. It was an absorbing battle of persistence between India’s best spinner and England’s best batsman. At the other end, Sharma was getting reverse swing while Bumrah was being used in short spells in a bid to produce breakthroughs.
Root was ready to wait for the bowlers to tire and the SG ball to get soft. For company, he had Sibley, who looked to build on the confidence-boosting half-century in the second innings of the second Galle Test. The 25-year-old showed patience and gave his skipper excellent support.
Both targetted Washington Sundar and Shahbaz Nadeem, the latter inducted into the playing eleven after fellow left-arm spinner Axar Patel was ruled out due to a knee injury. Root swept and reverse-swept against the two spinners once he settled down.
Despite coming to bat more than an hour after Sibley, Root outscored his teammate as the bowlers toiled. Kohli did not have the luxury of turning to left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja, out with a broken thumb. Jadeja, who bowled a match-winning spell in their last Test at the venue in 2016, could have provided the kind of consistency required to frustrate the batsmen and push them into mistakes.
The inexperienced Sundar and Nadeem leaked boundaries at regular intervals as they erred in their lengths, and that helped Root and Sibley take further control. The duo ensured India went wicketless in the second session.
Ishant Sharma produced several edges but the low bounce and a soft SG ball ensured it did not reach the slip fielder or the wicketkeeper. The bowlers toiled but England batsmen showed discipline and didn’t play any premeditated shot.
Sibley’s resistance since morning and Root’s effort spanning two sessions took a physical toll as both batsmen fought dehydration, relying on plenty of electrolyte drinks. Root and Sibley though did not look like they would succumb in the battle of attrition. Scoring big in the first innings was the game plan batting coach Jonathan Trott had spoken about before the Test and the pair made sure they were executing it.
Four years ago, England made 477 in the first innings in Chennai and still lost by an innings and 75 runs. In that match, Karun Nair’s triple century had helped India amass a record 759/7. England would thus be wary of letting the strong start slip.
Despite suffering from cramps even Kohli came to his help once Root continued with his show, finding the gaps. With three overs to go for the second new ball, Root completed his century with a single off Washington Sundar. Until Bumrah produced a perfect yorker in the last over, Sibley too had looked like he would end his 10-inning wait to score his third Test century. Still, he won admiration for his Pujara-like focus, facing 286 balls in a six-hour plus stay for 87 (12×4).
With Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, and Jos Buttler to come, Root said the visitors would ideally want to take the score beyond 600. “We have to look to score as many runs as we can—600, 700 if we can. Try and make most of the first innings. The pitch is starting to wear quite quickly. If we can bat the whole of tomorrow and into Day 3, then things could speed up. You never know what’s going to happen from that point onward, he said.