VISAKHAPATNAM: When the early Monday morning Sun glistened off the Bay of Bengal in this City of Destiny, it was pregnant with possibilities. For England, who have already dined with immortality a few times under the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum regime, the history books beckoned. For India also, it was about history. Of continuing to maintain a positive ledger at home. No visiting team had ever made 300 — forget successfully chasing something as ludicrous as 399 — in the fourth innings of a Test in India.
In the end, the hosts ticked a couple of big boxes to level the five-match series with three games to go (the next one is at Rajkot from February 15). The end — Tom Hartley losing his off-stump to Jasprit Bumrah with 107 runs more to achieve the improbable — was apt. It was Bumrah, who changed the whole feel of the game when he channelled the bowling Gods in the first innings. If his 6/45 had given Rohit Sharma & Co. a 143-run lead, his 3/46 on day four had given them big breakthroughs, including the one of Jonny Bairstow, adjudged leg-before for 26. With Ben Stokes at the other end, the pair could have done serious damage in pursuit of 399.
If England had failed in their own pursuit of history, another man, R Ashwin, thought he had his own moment. On 499 wickets, he thought he had Hartley caught behind but DRS reversed the decision. Nevertheless, the three in the ‘wickets’ column was a welcome return after he had gone wicketless in the first innings.
Even otherwise, this has been a strange old series for the 37-year-old. In the first innings at the YSR ACA-VDCA Stadium, he had become an afterthought; a bowler hit out of the attack. In India. In the end, he had gone wicket-less for only the fifth time across 110 innings while playing at home. You don’t normally think a guy with 496 wickets had something to prove. Across Hyderabad and the first innings here, he had picked up six wickets for 255 runs (average of over 42 while striking at 62; both well below lifetime best). In other words, a debutant (Tom Hartley), a part-time offspinner (Joe Root), a teenage leg-spinner (Rehan Ahmed), and two pacers (James Anderson and Bumrah) had performed better than him.
With the bat, he had seemingly picked up a few confrontations during India’s first innings. There was an incident with Anderson on Day One of the Test. After the day’s play, he had sought out an urgent meeting with the square-leg umpire, Marais Erasmus.
Ashwin takes charge
On the fourth morning of the Test, Ashwin took charge. Literally. Before play began, he led the team talk while skipper Rohit nodded along. He wouldn’t have been pleased when Rohit held him back first thing in the morning as he preferred Axar Patel and Bumrah to begin proceedings.
While Axar did bring success, it was belated. As soon as Bumrah finished a wicketless opening spell, Rohit had seen enough. It was time to bring in his lead spinner from the Media Box end. He was on the mark straightaway, an attempted Ollie Pope reverse-sweep almost resulting in a wicket. While Axar continued to be expensive — Pope and the highly impressive Zak Crawley had harvested six fours across 16 balls — Ashwin was already working different lines to get the England batters outside their comfort zone.
It was now time for the wicket-taking ball. Looking to be very proactive, Pope was always on the lookout for the full ball to unfurl the sweep. So Ashwin found that perfect in-between length — neither too short nor too full. Pope went back to essay the cut. It took the outside edge and Rohit hung on for a good reflex catch at slip.
Joe Root, a former teammate of Ashwin’s at Rajasthan Royals, was the next to go. Perhaps feeling the effect of that blow he took while fielding in the cordon on Sunday, he had come with the intent of hitting every ball. Even when he’s aggressive, he seldom comes out to the spinners very early in his innings. Here, he danced down to lift Axar over mid-off for six. Three balls later, a very agricultural across-the-line swipe off Ashwin saw him lose his shape and the miscue was pocketed by a backward point — 6-0-25-3. After doing substantial damage with the ball, he restarted his conversation with Erasmus. Bairstow was there somewhere. There was sufficient needle between the two; it wasn’t hard to miss his fist pump within shouting distance of the batter when the latter was dismissed by Bumrah.
Once Stokes was run-out thanks to a sensational pick-up and throw by Shreyas Iyer, the rest folded on a frenetic day’s play. Rohit, a sentimental captain, gave Ashwin the chance to reach 500 wickets but the England batters survived. Bumrah wasn’t quite so hospitable.
No of Test wickets Ashwin has
This is India’s first win in four Tests at home. They had previously lost two and drawn one (Indore – L, Ahmedabad – D and Hyderabad – L)
India have pocketed the second match of a series six times after failing to win the opening Test since 2017 (at home)