The newest gimmick in Test cricket arrived in spurts – not always from the team credited with it – but the oldest truth of the oldest format was reinforced on day one of the series: a batting approach can have a say only when the quality of bowling of the two sides is comparable.
With two of the greatest spinners of all time in their attack, India bowled England out for 246 on a surface friendlier than the ones we have seen recently in India. By stumps India had wiped off 119 of those as Yashasvi Jaiswal and Rohit Sharma feasted on an attack that consisted of Jack Leach and two spinners with just one Test between them.
Jaiswal it was who started the innings with a boundary first ball, it was he who welcomed debutant Tom Hartley with a six first ball, and it was he who scored the first fifty of the series quicker than a run a ball.
The most impactful work, though, happened either side of lunch after England had made a quick start against Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj. Well not as quick as India’s, but still you will take 41 for 0 in eight overs against two bowlers of that quality any day of the week. Especially when you have edged or missed 12 balls in that period of play.
Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin were called upon in earnest. Immediately Jadeja bowled a maiden, beating Zak Crawley three times in a row. The ball turned for both of them, and they found their length in no time. Denied the drive and the back-foot shots, the batters could either sweep or defend. Two sweeps off Jadeja brought Ben Duckett fours, but Ashwin bowled straighter to deny him the sweep too. The offbreak landed on the leather, beat his inside edge and trapped him in front.
Ollie Pope never looked comfortable during his brief stay, and edged Jadeja defending in front of his body. Crawley looked to hit out, but was beaten in the flight by Ashwin and ended up check-driving to mid-off. Three wickets had fallen in five runs; first eight overs of spin: 3 for 30.
Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow added what looked like the most assured 61 runs in the innings, but after lunch Axar Patel produced an unplayable delivery. On a length, middle and off, making Bairstow defend in front of the body, and then turning it past him to take the top of off. Just to avoid doing this, the pair had been sweeping off the line, just going down to anything pitched outside off. In doing that, Root then swept at a length too short, and ended up top-edging to short fine leg to make it 125 for 5.
With no easy runs on offer, Ben Foakes followed a turning delivery to edge Axar through to the keeper. Bumrah came back to show what a good pitch it was when he took Rehan Ahmed’s inside edge with a slower ball, which still carried through comfortably to the keeper. The first 17 overs of the middle session brought England just 34 runs, the slowest any session of 100 balls or more has been for them in the Bazball era.
From 155 for 7, Ben Stokes put together three valuable stands to give England some hope. Hartley hit Ashwin for a four and a six in his breezy 23 off 24 when Test cricket was still a breeze for him. Stokes pulled out some incredible hits during his 41-run stand with Mark Wood, going past 50 himself, but it was only a matter of time that wickets would fall during such high-risk batting.
While England might be pleased with the lower order’s contribution, they will look at how they were not allowed to attack the spinners. The one sign of Bazball on that scorecard perhaps was drawing Jadeja’s costliest analysis at 4.88 an over, but still there were a few wickets that went down playing the forward-defensive. India will argue the bowlers have to bowl well enough to draw that kind of respect.
It doesn’t happen if you start by bowling on the pads as Wood did. Jaiswal dispatched him for four. Hartley didn’t quite bowl a bad ball, but Jaiswal took him down with a slog-swept and a traditionally swept six in his first over. Not only did the England spinners drew less turn than Ashwin and Jadeja they didn’t have the accuracy of Axar, who turned it even less.
Short balls and half-volleys both abounded as the India openers put Hartley and Jack Leach under immense pressure. That Jaiswal drove four fours either side of mid-off against spinners speaks of the half-volleys offered. Add three pulled fours to it, and you know you are being the captain’s nightmare.
Playing only one fast bowler, Stokes had no option but to look for control from the spinners. He back them with aggressive fields, which brought dividend when Rohit took the bait and found mid-on off Leach. However, by that time India had reached 80 in the 13th over, having brought up their quickest fifty in their first innings of a Test.
Jaiswal was in no mood to slow down as he kept poncing on every error in length, hitting nine fours and three sixes in his unbeaten 70-ball 76.
Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo