Bumrah and Shami, endless mindgames, and England's great malfunction

Joe Root reacts to India's lower-order counterattack
August 16, 2021

Up in the media centre during the fifth-day lunch break, the great and the good (as well as the significantly better than average) were all united in their astonishment at the malfunction they were witnessing. Phil Tufnell, for one, was struggling to recall a more self-destructive passage of play from an England team in his lifetime, and he had lived a fair few of them.

But this… this was something extra special. Rarely has a match-winning position been squandered so wantonly, so pointedly, so brainlessly - as England laid down their arms in the five-day war of attrition, and chose instead to lose themselves in an irrelevant battle of wills. And, by the time Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami had backed up their extraordinary batting by picking off an opener apiece for ducks to leave England 1 for 2, it was shaping up as the most wholesale capitulation ever known.

Everything that transpired on the fifth morning stemmed from the ugly but compelling events of the third evening. In the dying moments of that day, Bumrah's ten-ball over to England's No. 11 James Anderson, with barely a delivery in his half of the pitch and his front foot pushing the line in every sense, ignited the tinder-dry sensibilities of a rivalry that has rarely needed an excuse to get rowdy in recent years. After all, Anderson has been around long enough to remember the Trent Bridge Test of 2007, when a row over jelly beans provided India with just enough righteous indignation to make sure they had a series-sealing victory.

As the players left the field, the animosity was plain. A grinning Bumrah, arms raised in a questioning fashion, as if to say to a livid Anderson: why shouldn't I stick it up your jumper? Virat Kohli, inevitably, was in the thick of the action too, just as he would be on the resumption of his own duel with Anderson on day four, during which he informed England's greatest bowler that "this is not your f****** backyard". Words that, on the evidence of the bunfight that has subsequently erupted, look set to enter the annals alongside Michael Clarke's promise to deliver Anderson a "broken f****** arm" in Brisbane in 2013-14.

The point being, of course, that Anderson is old enough and ugly enough to look after himself in the international arena. He did not need his team to get emotional on his behalf. And, in fact, for the first 30 minutes of the final day's play, England's cricket was smart and focussed. Anderson and Ollie Robinson played the long game with the delayed new ball, challenging the dangerous Rishabh Pant to risk the first move. And though he duly did so with a familiar gallop and thwack through the covers off Anderson, Robinson did for him four balls later, with line, length, and a defensive prod to the keeper. It's amazing what can happen when you bowl your best ball to any given batter.

By degrees, however, England lost their grip as soon as Pant had left the stage. Instead of caving in as the analytics said they would, India's lower-order - ostensibly one of the weakest in modern Test history - signalled from the outset a refusal to play by their numbers. It took a moment of genuine cunning from Robinson (probably England's last example of thinking cricket in the innings) to confound a feisty Ishant Sharma, a perfectly pitched knuckleball at 64mph, crashing into his front pad like a microlight with engine failure. But thereafter, their performance was entirely knuckleheaded.

Foremost among England's brain-fade was the use - or rather, misuse - of Mark Wood. Speaking to Sky Sports before the start of play, Wood confirmed that he had heard a "bit of a crack" when landing heavily on his right shoulder on the fourth evening, words that ought to have filled England's management with untold dread, given how eviscerated their pace-bowling stocks have become since the long-term injuries to Jofra Archer and Olly Stone.

Wood did not take the field at all in the first half-hour, seemingly a wise precaution, for there really was no need to change a plan that was still on course to deliver a victory target of less than 200. Instead, no sooner had he stepped on the field of play, he was back into the action - his "external" injury permitting him an immediate stint - and then, five balls into his first over, he flung himself to intercept a push from Shami and turned white with pain as he jarred the exact same shoulder. It should, by rights, have been the end of his day, there and then.

Instead, the arrival of Bumrah meant all bets were off. As if his smiling visage wasn't enough to get under England's skin, his first act was to ask Haseeb Hameed at short leg to kneel before him and tie up his dangling shoe-lace, potentially a coincidence, but an expertly inserted length of needle either way. The first ball he faced from Wood was a bouncer - inevitably. So, too, the second. So, too, the third, as Bumrah wound into a hook, and found enough edge to get off the mark.

Robinson rumbled in for another over, but despite inducing a low edge into the cordon off Shami, Joe Root was suddenly getting twitchy about the size of India's lead. Bumrah sensed the mood, with a rasping straight drive that deflected off the non-striker's stumps, and suddenly, that was that. No more freebies, as England's best bowler of the morning found himself limited to a solitary wide slip, and a phalanx of boundary riders, essentially charged with keeping it tight while Wood knocked some blocks off.

It's worth at this point to remember exactly who England were dealing with. The older members of the team might have had a dim and distant memory of Shami's vague batting functionality, after he had made his only previous Test half-century at Trent Bridge in 2014 - a deck so dead that the match is now best remembered for Alastair Cook's one and only Test wicket.

But Bumrah… now he was a proper batting bunny. Statistically, if not stylistically, he had long been the closest thing to an heir to the most feckless tailender of them all, New Zealand's Chris Martin, having made a grand total of 18 runs in his first 19 innings, including a highest score of 6, and an average of 1.80. All of a sudden, he's harvested 62 runs in three innings on this England tour - the same, shockingly, as his captain, Kohli, and at a higher average too.

It was in Wood's third over that the mood of the match took its decisive turn. Prior to taking strike, Bumrah pulled out of his stance, gesticulating at England's fielders, Root and Jos Buttler in particular, as Shami and umpire Michael Gough became involved too. His response was an angry hack, flat and fast through point as Kohli on the India balcony pumped his fist in approval and the lead marched into the 190s. And though Wood responded with a crushing bouncer to the side of the helmet, it was clear by this stage that such intimidation was pointless. Every ball not aimed at the stumps was an invitation for India to burgle another run, to bolster an already threatening stand, to exceed expectations that were already far beyond what they had hoped their tail could be capable of.

Throughout it all, there was no sign of Anderson returning to restore order, at least, not until Root, perhaps already sensing that the moment was lost and that England's only hope was for him to switch back into batting mode, vanished into the dressing room, presumably to run a few options through the number-crunchers. "Give it to Jimmy, dammit!" was the computer's unsurprising verdict, but Shami greeted his third ball with a clip through midwicket that Dom Sibley could only dream of playing, before Root himself dropped Bumrah at slip off Moeen Ali, a clanger by any standards, but a head-in-hands moment that gave every snapper in the ground their 1000-word picture.

And the remainder of England's fielding effort was a fever dream. Shami slammed Ali for four and six over cow corner to march to a 57-ball fifty, and after the lunch break had passed in a will-they-won't-they of declaration speculation, the pair got another trio of boundaries in nine balls, either side of a five-minute hiatus while Shami waited, with trousers at half-mast, for the delivery of a correct thigh pad. Again, it could have been an accident, but like Bumrah's shoelace, there was no reason to think it wasn't another psychological ploy. For England had been outmatched in the mindgames every step of the day. And as it turned out, their agonies were only just beginning.

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