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4th Test, Day 1: Axar, Ashwin combine to take 7 wickets as England stumble to 205 all out

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For the first time in this series, there was a pitch that could be called “balanced” in terms of how much support it provided to batters and bowlers. It was difficult to say so, though, after seeing England get out for just 205 runs in the first innings on day one of the fourth Test.

This was the pitch where no one had any significant advantage over the other. Batters could apply themselves and find runs. Bowlers needed to work on their plans and show patience for wickets. If anyone needed the answer to what a good, competitive pitch looks like, just take a look at this Motera pitch and how it behaved throughout the day.

There was turn and bounce for the bowlers to remain hopeful of getting rewarded for their hard work, but nothing exaggerated to make the batters nervous.

There is still a great possibility that the ball will start turning square later in the match, but that is both understandable and acceptable as wear and tear during the course of the match tends to have an impact on the pitch. And Virat Kohli and his boys will not have to come out in defence of the pitch this time!

It, in fact, turns the focus on England’s batting. The mental scars of the previous two matches seemed to have made them suspicious of their own abilities.

The contrasting ways in which their openers, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley, got out were perhaps an apt representation of England’s muddled approach. If Sibley made the same mistake of playing for the non-existing turn and let the ball take his inside edge on its way to stumps, Crawley jumped out of his crease and looked to go over the top without reaching anywhere near the ball.

Some of their batters, however, did show resilience and applied their learnings from the previous games well. Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pop and Dan Lawrence all looked prepared for a hard grind and batted with purpose.

But none of them could convert their starts into big scores to carry England’s struggling innings on their shoulders.

A lot of credit for that goes to India’s persistent bowling. Axar Patel continued his fine form with the ball in his debut series to provide a wicket off his second ball in the morning, breaching the defence of Sibley with his reliable arm ball.

He dismissed Crawley in the next over and when Mohammed Siraj claimed Joe Root’s wicket with an in-cutter to leave England tottering on 30/3, another collapse seemed around the corner.

However, Stokes, who top-scored with 55, and Bairstow (28) conjured up a 48-run stand — the highest partnership — for the fourth wicket to stop their descend. Since scoring 578 in benign conditions in the first innings of the first Test in Chennai, England batsmen have yet to combine for another 50-run stand.

Siraj returned in the 29th over and produced another in-cutter to end Bairstow’s stay.

Stokes then joined hands with Pope to fashion another promising partnership only to see it broken, this time by Washington Sundar. Stokes played his nemesis Ravichandran Ashwin with caution and saw off his eight-over spell patiently. When he started playing slog and reverse sweep with success, he looked primed for a special innings at last.

But India’s persistence posed an unrelenting challenge. Sundar found the right line and length to breach Stokes’ half-hearted front-foot defence with another non-turner to rap his back pad.

Pope got a bit unlucky when an inside edge deflected off his back pad flap and was smartly caught by Shubman Gill off Ashwin, his first of three wickets.

Lawrence looked at ease during his 74-ball stay and hit eight good-looking boundaries before a pre-determined rush down wicket to become Patel’s third victim. Patel removed Bess in the same over.

When Ashwin dismissed Leach on the fifth ball of the 76th over to wrap up the innings, there must be a sense of what-might-have-been in the England dressing room.

Although James Anderson provided them a promising start with a spell of 5-5-0-1 in which he trapped Gill LBW before India ended the day with 24/1 on the board, both the teams know who has the advantage.

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