Support cast responds in England's hour of need

Moeen Ali got his chance at Lord's
August 15, 2021

At the fourth time of asking, and in England's hour of need, a team performance has broken out at Lord's. On a two-paced Sunday, it was the support cast who carried the fight - Mark Wood with fury, Moeen Ali with late guile, and Sam Curran with a goldenballs moment to dismiss Virat Kohli, and send shuddering echoes of 2018 through India's then-rattled dressing room.

Though Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane sucked the juice out of the contest in a bloodless 50-over stand (critics might suggest Lord's unparalleled drainage system has done likewise to the pitch), England's perseverance came up trumps in the end. Two delicious deliveries late in the day - a spiteful lifter to hand Wood his third wicket, and a moment of magic from Moeen to the dangerous Ravindra Jadeja, has cranked this contest open with a new ball due first thing.

"It's a fantastic Test match," said Moeen at the close. "It's great for me personally to come back and to be a part of it, and hopefully tomorrow morning we can bowl them out and chase the runs down."

To judge by the pitch's character towards the back end of the day, that won't be a remotely straightforward prospect. With a lead of 154 overnight and four wickets standing, and Rishabh Pant primed for one of his habitual counterattacks, Moeen warned that a target in excess of 220 would be "difficult but not impossible".

"They've got Pant, but we've got Jimmy," he added. For those Monday-morning punters, with time to kill and spare £20 notes in their pockets, there could be a treat in store. But either way, given India's first-day scoreline of 267 for 2, and their dominance of the big moments at Trent Bridge last week, it beggars belief that England are currently favourites to take a 1-0 lead going into next week's midpoint of the series.

For that, the fourth-day credit belongs largely to Wood, whose efforts all day long could not be faulted - except, of course, the hideous moment when he over-did it, hurtling up the slope at the Pavilion End and jarring his right shoulder as he tumbled over the boundary. Long gone are the days when senior fast bowlers could get away with sticking out a cursory size 12 while escorting a shot to the rope, but this was taking his commitment to self-harming extremes.

Moments earlier, however, in what would end up being his solitary over of the evening session, Wood had produced the moment that made England's disciplined afternoon of toil worthwhile. Pujara had no answer to a spiteful lifter on off stump, and as he traipsed off for 45 from 206 balls, he took with him a passion-killing methodology that India had been rather grateful to fall back on, after their top-order had come off second-best in their bid to own the morning tempo.

In the first innings, Wood had been overlooked until play resumed after lunch, with England preferring on that occasion to focus on guile in helpful conditions, not that the tactic paid off in a 126-run opening stand. But this time, the hackles were up from the get-go - fuelled, no doubt, by Anderson's war of words with Jasprit Bumrah as the players left the field on the third evening. And when Ollie Robinson was withdrawn after just two new-ball overs, with Wood given his licence to cut loose instead, it was clear a different dynamic was about to enter the game.

The gambit paid off handsomely for England. KL Rahul, the first-innings centurion, snicked a 93mph lifter to depart for 5, but it was Wood's duel with Rohit Sharma that reframed the terms of the debate. England's first bouncer of the match at Trent Bridge had unseated him on the hook on that occasion, and now he was suckered by a similar trap. Wood traded a flat pull for six into the Grandstand for a scuffed steer to Moeen three balls later, and at 27 for 2, India had lost both of their openers before their deficit had been overturned.

"I was very pleased for him," Moeen said of Wood's impact. "He was telling me in the first innings that he doesn't get the wickets he would like, and I said these things can happen and they will come. The way he bowled was fantastic and it was a great catch by me at deep square leg!

"He fully deserved his wickets and the wicket of Pujara was massive. The way he ran in and banged the wicket with a soft ball on a dead wicket... I thought he was fantastic today."

Out came Kohli with fire in his eyes, to be met inevitably by Anderson - who extended his new-ball spell to a ninth over, and his war of words to an umpteenth volume. The stump mics took on the story: "You swearing at me again are you?" Kohli was overheard saying at one point. "This isn't your f****** backyard".

Anderson's notches on the Lord's honours board might beg to suggest differently, but either way, the heated atmosphere seemed to be suiting England's purposes perfectly well at that stage. And when Curran - wicketless in his first 41 overs of the series - suckered Kohli with a big booming outswinger across his bows from over the wicket, India were three-down with a lead of 28, and suddenly desperate to pour cold water on the day.

"The chat in the afternoon was just to hang in there, basically," Moeen said. "Don't try and search too much, just stay in there and something will happen. They came back strong and played really well, but I thought we still managed to contain them really well. We knew if we could get one out we could go bang-bang."

It was in the face of this changed scenario that Moeen's work began in earnest. In his only previous Test this year, at Chennai back in February, he had picked up eight wickets but been milked at close to four an over - a consequence of red-ball rust on the one hand, and an over-eagerness to exploit helpful conditions on the other.

This time, however, he was aided by a pair of opponents with nothing more than survival on their minds, as well as by the same uncluttered mindset that Jonny Bairstow had spoken of after his first-innings fifty - an acceptance of his circumstances after so long without any meaningful red-ball practice, and a willingness to go with the flow as he extended into his role.

"It's probably easier to go from bowling quicker [in white-ball cricket] to slower than it is probably going slower to quicker," Moeen said. "On the first day I went wicket-to-wicket, one-day style, trying to go at two, three an over. And in the second innings, it was just staying patient really. I found that the hardest without many overs under my belt, but I managed to get a couple of poles at the end which was quite nice.

"I was trying to give Root the control [on the first day]," he added. "I've struggled to do that in the past, and I think coming in on the back of not bowling much probably helped. I felt good through the lack of bowling, sometimes I over-bowl in practice, and get into bad habits. I just made sure my basics are good and it's managed to pay off."

It helped too that Wood's energetic experimentations, particularly in the first innings, had included regular stints from round the wicket, creating a juicy dinner plate of rough outside the right-hander's off stump, with which he unsettled Rahane particularly, and eventually unseated him at the second attempt, after a bad miss at point from Bairstow on 31.

"Initially I bowled a bit too straight today, but when I did bowl one wider it spun and I was pleased with that," he added. "I struggled to consistently bowl there for a bit, but I still felt like something was going to happen."

Outside of the ubiquitous excellence of Anderson and Root, very little of England's performance in this match has followed any known script. Each of the extras, as it were, has been ad-libbing his way through the contest, creating their own interpretations of what Test cricket needs to look like in the cluttered summer of 2021. But somehow, and extraordinarily, it's in danger of coming together, for all that Pant in the first instance, and Jasprit Bumrah and Co. thereafter, will have plenty to say in the denouement.

"We are a bowling unit," Moeen reiterated. "Jimmy got five in the first innings, Woody and I got a few each. It takes a full team effort as a bowling unit, and that's what we've been in this game."

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