The current state of the sport of cricket is quite debatable. Every other day, talk of ‘Test cricket is dying’ arises. There have been numerous attempts to justify the growing sizes of willows (something which the Marylebone Cricket Club has addressed in their last meeting) and maintain a healthy competition between bat and ball. But amongst these chats, the one that stands out is the concept of meaningless cricket. Former cricketers and experts have consistently tried to opine that every match in the sport should have significance. But does this argument really hold true?
Every time, a dead rubber is about to be played, words like ‘pride’ and phrases like ‘end on a high’ pop up. But if these matches are viewed from a larger perspective, you realise that they do matter.
England’s Moeen Ali plays a shot during their first day of the fifth Test.
Take the most recent example of Australia, who revamped their Test side after going 2-0 down at home against South Africa. Though all eyes were on Faf du Plessis, thanks to ‘lollygate’, Steve Smith and Co had a point to prove. In crisis situations like these, a team searches for their identity and aim to reestablish themselves. Fortunately, Australia put up a courageous performance to win the day-night Test at Adelaide. Moments like these tend to have a rubbing-off effect, and in their next Test match at the Gabba, the Aussies took 8 wickets of the touring Pakistan to put them on the back foot on the second day of the Test match.
England have faced similar circumstances. The English team have gone down 3-0 and if they didn’t put up a stellar show, they could suffer a 4-0 series loss. Experts, understandably so, have questioned Alastair Cook’s ability to lead the side. The skipper has failed to win a single Test in India so far. England have a lot of problems to solve and they began fixing some of them at the Chepauk stadium on Friday.
The start, though, was not at all inspiring. The visitors lost both their openers, Cook and Keaton Jenning early, leaving Joe Root and Moeen Ali with a lot of rebuilding to do. Moeen’s batting position has been scrutinised since the third Test, with fans criticising his struggles at No 4. For a while, it seemed like he was having trouble finding his rhythm and was getting beaten quite easily in the first session. However, Root led from the front and bailed his side out of a difficult situation early on.
Come the second session, and the English batsmen grew in confidence. Moeen and Root scored at a brisk rate in their partnership of 146 before England’s No 3 was sent back to the hut by Ravindra Jadeja for 88. During that stand, nothing, not even Ravichandran Ashwin — who surprisingly had a poor day at his home ground — could perturb the pair. They were playing fearlessly. The batting show from England continued even when Jonny Bairstow joined Moeen at the centre. Bairstow holed out a catch to covers for 49, but he had done his bit by stitching together a stand of 86 with the southpaw. Overall, England had a fantastic day, probably one of their best on the tour. But they need to build on this.
Moeen’s overnight score is 120 and he’s batting with the dangerous Ben Stokes. England are in a commendable position, like they were in Rajkot. India, on the other side, struggled to maintain pressure on the touring batsmen. To add to their misery, Amit Mishra, who has come in for Jayant Yadav, has been expensive, which has left Indian skipper Virat Kohli baffling. Kohli tossed the ball to Jayant whenever he wanted to give Ashwin-Jadeja a breather in the last two Tests. The Haryana all-rounder was more than handy with his deceptive bowling. He not only curbed runs but also scalped a wicket or two in his spells. But in Chennai, the Indian team sorely missed him on Day 1.
This is something Moeen should look to take advantage of. England still have left Jos Buttler left, and ideally, they should aim for nothing less than 450 to 475. Moeen has looked confident with his sweeps and it’s difficult to stop Stokes when he gets going. With Ashwin failing to match up to his standards on Friday, the English batsmen should look to attack the offie and not let him find his rhythm.
England should also target Mishra, who’s clearly looking anxious on his return. He bowled a bad ball almost every over and was duly punished. The onus to do so would be on Moeen — he’s been on the crease for 222 balls — and would be aware of how the pitch is behaving. What was noteworthy about the Root-Moeen partnership was their running between the wickets. They took crucial singles to keep the scoreboard ticking and the visitors should look to continue with that approach.
Cook and Co are in a desperate need to find their own identity, they have laid the foundation and now need to strengthen their bearings. While it’s too early to predict any sort of result, the visitors need to post a mammoth first innings total to put India under pressure. They did at Mumbai and still lost. However, it’s unlikely that Kohli will slam another 235 to shame them again. It isn’t about playing for pride for England in the fifth Test. It’s about sending out a message that they are a quality side and don’t deserve the the slack that they have received so far. India drew a match against a dominant English side in a dead rubber before going on to whitewash Australia 4-0 in 2013.