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Curran Swings Things England’s Way

After a gap of almost two months, Test cricket returned to England as they took on India at Edgbaston in the first of an eagerly anticipated five-match series. Prior to the match, most attention had been focused on Adil Rashid, who was called up to the England side after his fine form in the white-ball game. His selection was controversial, because in February he had announced he no longer wanted to play red-ball cricket for his county, Yorkshire. Many felt this alone should have precluded him from the team, and there were plenty of outspoken comments emanating from the White Rose, both those in authority there and from former players.
Once Rashid was brought back into the 13-man squad, after an absence since December 2016, it was obvious he was going to play his first home Test, 327 days since his last first-class appearance – the sixth longest gap in England’s history. It left a decision to make between the recalled Moeen Ali, the in-situ Sam Curran or the potential debutant Jamie Porter of Essex, who has been the most successful English bowler in county cricket for the last two or three seasons. As the ground had been well watered, it was decided that only one spinner was required, and Curran got the nod.
For India, much of the debate was over who should feature at the top of their order, and in the end it was Cheteshwar Pujara (ranked No 6 in the world by the ICC) who missed out, which gave some idea of the apparent strength in depth in the side. That meant a top three of Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and K.L.Rahul before skipper Virat Kohli came in. After a disappointing tour of England last time round, when he made just 134 runs and averaged 13.40, the feeling was that early wickets would bring the pressure on him. But the Kohli of 2014 and the Kohli of 2018 are very different people. India’s selectors also decided on selecting just one spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, with the excellent Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav both missing out.
Joe Root won the toss and decided to bat on a good-looking pitch at the start of England’s 1000th Test match, and got to lunch with the loss of just one wicket, that of Alastair Cook for 13 to Ashwin, who is so effective against left-handers. Keaton Jennings then fell after the ball rolled back onto the stumps when looking well set on 42. Dawid Malan’s stay was brief, and the pressure on him would only mount during the game. By tea, England had reached 163 for three, with Root and Jonny Bairstow looking settled. By that point Root had reached 6000 Test runs, the quickest to do so, in terms of the number of days after making his debut (five years and 231 days). The pair had added 104 when the latter called Root for a second run that just wasn’t there and Root was brilliantly run out by Kohli for 80, the 11th successive time where, having passed 50, he had failed to reach three figures.
That dismissal left England on 216 for four, but suddenly everything changed. Bairstow followed soon after for 70, Jos Buttler was trapped in front for a duck and Ben Stokes chipped one back to Ashwin. By the end of the day, England had crumbled to 285 for nine, and the end came early on the second morning as they were all out for 287, Ashwin finishing with four for 62. It was a disappointing total, but it could have been worse had India’s catching behind the stumps off the seamers been better.
India got off to a solid reply, with James Anderson looking on fine form but failing to have any luck, while Stuart Broad appeared a little off his best, bowling more no-balls in his first four overs than he has in the last nine Tests. It was Curran who made the first breakthrough, dismissing Vijay for 20, with Rahul following two balls later. Curran made it three in eight balls to reduce the tourists to 59 for three.
Stokes then struck twice and India were 100 for five. The second of them took him to 100 Test wickets, making him the 15th England player to complete the double with 1000 runs. It could have got even better when, after 22 balls stuck on 21, Kohli edged another lovely delivery from Anderson straight to Malan, who dropped a regulation catch in the slips. The next ball Cook dropped Hardik Pandya off Stokes, and what could have been 100 for seven became a turning point. It was compelling stuff: England still seemed to have the edge, though they didn’t have Kohli – and he was dropped again by Malan when on 51.
Thereafter, it became a masterclass from India’s captain. As the wickets fell at one end, he carried serenely on. At 169 for seven, India were looking at a hefty deficit, but over the next 111 minutes, Kohli allowed the tail to face just 37 balls, while he went on to make his 22nd century before finally becoming the last man out with a score of 149. By that stage, he had dragged his side up to a total of 274, a deficit of only 13 runs. Curran ended up the most successful bowler, with four for 74, while Anderson got the nod as the unluckiest.
There was just time for England to bat again before close of play, and Ashwin bowled Cook with an identical delivery as had accounted for him in the first innings, the left-hander just failing to protect his off stump. At 9 for one, it was all in the balance at the start of Friday morning. But that soon changed as India had a wonderful period, the bowlers being backed up by some excellent catching around the bat as England slumped to 86 for six.
Immediately after lunch it got worse, as Buttler fell to a strange shot and 20-year-old Curran was left with the tail to see what he could do to give his fellow bowlers something to defend. First Rashid supported him in an hour-long partnership of 48. When Broad came in, Curran upped his scoring rate, and the pair took only 32 minutes to add 41; for the first time, Kohli began to look rattled. Curran reached his fifty with a bludgeoned six, the fourth youngest England batsman to achieve the feat, behind Denis Compton, Jack Crawford and Haseeb Hameed.
When Curran was the last man out for 63, England had reached at barely adequate 180 all out, leaving India with a target of 194. If they were looking for positives, India’s highest successful run chase against England was only 176. Ishant Sharma, perhaps showing the benefit of his experience in English conditions, was the most successful bowler, taking five for 51. It is a curious anomaly of his career that his only domestic five-wicket haul came in the first of his 33 home Tests while this was his seventh away from India.
Tea was taken between innings, leaving India 36 overs to make headway into their target – or for England to apply some pressure by taking early wickets. It was Broad who made the breakthrough in his third over, trapping Vijay in front, and when he followed it up in his next over, having Dhawan caught behind, people began to wonder if we might be seeing one of those special spells from him. While that didn’t quite happen, the crowd was tense and lively, and the rest of the seam attack each picked up a wicket so by the close India were 110 for five, needing 84 more runs. Significantly, Kohli was still there; it felt like a case of: get him and win the match.
A hefty crowd flooded in to Edgbaston on the Saturday morning. The Test had been compelling so far; now would come the climax. They didn’t have long to wait for some significant action: in his first over, Anderson induced an edge from Karthik, which flew straight to the maligned Malan, who held on. Pandiya was next in, and amazingly he averaged only 3.66 in the second innings of Tests. For almost ten overs, he and Kohli patiently edged their side closer to their target. Root turned to Stokes, and in his first over he picked up two wickets to change the whole tone of the match – especially as the first was Kohli, out for 51 (he’d made 200 runs in the match; the next best by any of the India batsmen was 53).
At 141 for eight, India were facing defeat, and when Rashid was brought on and trapped Sharma in front in his first over, the game was nearly done. Still, one more wicket remained, and it was appropriate that Stokes should get it – a regulation edge to Cook at first slip – as India were all out for 162, beaten by 31 runs in a thrilling and utterly absorbing Test. With a total attendance figure of 64,000 across the four days, this was about 10,000 more than had attended the five days of the famous 1981 Headingley Test. It may not live quite so long in the memory, but it will always have a special place in the heart of Man of the Match Curran.
Brief mention ought to be given here to Rashid as well. Many questioned his selection, for a range of reasons, mostly down to whether it was sensible to pick a bowler who hadn’t played red ball cricket for so long. Given that he bowled so little in the match, people might question what all the fuss was about, but the fact was in those 12 overs he took three wickets: Kohli and Sharma (twice). He also batted for 95 minutes, reaching double figures in both innings. It was, in short, a very solid if unspectacular performance – the sort of return that takes the heat out of a debate.
Both sides will have emerged from the match feeling they had plenty to work on. For England, there was a clear need to improve in the slip cordon and in the batting (especially the left-handers against Ashwin). Accordingly, the selectors decided to drop Malan and bring in Surrey’s 20-year-old right-hander Ollie Pope, who is enjoying an excellent season but only two years ago was playing for Cranleigh School. Stokes, meanwhile, will miss the next Test because of his court case, so his position goes to Chris Woakes. Those changes will reduce the number of left-handers in the side from seven to five. India’s concerns mirror England’s with the bat and in the field. Kohli’s performance took him to the top of the ICC rankings, but the rest of the top order needs to do better, so it will be a surprise not to see Pujara return to the side at Lord’s on Thursday.