Over recent months the prime minister has attempted to characterise the leader of the opposition, not entirely convincingly, as “Captain Hindsight”. Perhaps the nickname would stick better to the leader of England’s cricket team, who came out for the start of the fourth Test, won the toss, and promptly announced his best team for the third.
Sadly the third Test had already been played, with England fielding on that occasion the perfect XI for a notional game that never saw the light of day, a game in which seamers were useful and late-order batsmen were rendered unnecessary by the success of those at the top. In the event the seamers achieved little and the batsmen even less, and England weren’t going to make that mistake again. Not when there were so many new ones to have a go at.
So two bowlers were left out – though Jofra Archer’s continuing elbow troubles forced that issue – to allow the selection of an extra batsman and another spinner. This left them significantly undermanned in a seam-bowling department now staffed only by James Anderson and the all-rounder Ben Stokes, who in the first three matches of the series bowled a combined total of 15 overs and was playing with an upset stomach. With utter inevitability, as many wickets fell to seam in the first morning as in the entire previous Test.
Fortunately the returning Dan Lawrence looked much more than a desperation batting pick with an innings of 46 that, particularly given the standard of much of England’s batting, left a positive impression despite its ugly ending. Coming in at 121 for five and with the team in the mire, Lawrence quickly found an unusual level of fluency, dispatching Axar Patel for handsome back-to-back fours. The 23-year-old came in at No 5 in Sri Lanka with mixed results, and at No 3 in the first two matches of this series, before slotting in here in an unfamiliar role at No 7 and looking more at home, ending the afternoon session in particularly fine style by calmly defending four Ravichandran Ashwin deliveries before sending the last skimming down the ground, one of the shots of the day.
Discounting the moment the ball looped off the shoe of the fielder at short leg and into the gloves of Rishabh Pant, initially given out but overturned because it bounced just before it hit Shubman Gill’s footwear, the closest Lawrence came to genuine concern before his dismissal was when driving Ashwin down the ground for four. The ball was smeared towards the head of Virender Sharma, whose first instinct was to raise both hands, an attempt at self-defence that looked very much like an attempt to pluck it out of the air, but any chance of batsman being caught by umpire ended when the bowler got his fingertips in the way and Sharma flung himself to the ground, the ball speeding past him on its way to the rope.
That was the first ball of the 70th over; Lawrence had also hit a boundary from the first of the 69th and it was in attempting to do the same from the first of the 71st that he was undone, a completely misjudged attempt to attack Patel that left Pant with the easiest of stumpings. Still, it had been, as Stokes later said, “a small glimpse of the talent that Dan Lawrence has”.
The day started with Joe Root winning the toss (England are now on an odds-dodging run of 11 successful tosses in their last 12 long-form meetings with India, and 15 out of the last 18) and at least there is one department in which they consistently make the right calls. England’s batsmen therefore got the best of what looked a fine batting track, but just as you can lead a metaphorical horse to water without making it drink, you can lead actual English openers to day-one pitches but you can’t make them score runs.
Since Rory Burns and Dom Sibley put on 63 at the very start of the series, England’s opening partnerships have contributed a combined total of 29 runs in six innings at an average of 4.8. By those standards their 10 here was something of a triumph, the pair split when Sibley was bowled off his inside edge by Patel’s second ball of the day, another of those killer straight ones. Zak Crawley did twice as well by surviving until his fourth Patel delivery before dumping one straight into the hands of Mohammed Siraj at mid-off. Patel, three matches and 22 wickets into his Test career, has now dismissed each of England’s current openers three times in this series: once caught, once bowled, once lbw. What he’ll do with them next is anyone’s guess.