England on uneasy ground at tea in fourth Test
Ben Stokes made a measured half-century but England’s tea score of 144 for five left them vulnerable on day one of the fourth Test against India.
The tourists had the benefit of winning the toss in Ahmedabad, getting first use of batting conditions which were considerably less hazardous than the ones they experienced in a two-day defeat on the same ground last week.
But despite an absence of vicious turn, the top order stumbled in the face of a strong bowling display from India.
Stokes took some control as he compiled 55 either side of lunch, but his dismissal left the tourists relying on a selection gamble paying off.
Joe Root’s team-sheet showed two changes, with the anticipated return of Dom Bess supplemented by a recall for Dan Lawrence as a dedicated number seven batsman. That was a curious gambit, which left 38-year-old James Anderson as the sole specialist seamer, but it may prove crucial to their hopes of achieving a competitive total.
At the break, Lawrence had 15 not out with Ollie Pope digging deep for 21no off 73 balls.
It did not take India long to poke at England’s wounds after heavy back-to-defeats, Ishant Sharma with a big lbw shout against Zak Crawley from the second ball of the match. England survived that scare, and the rest of the first five overs, but the introduction of Axar Patel changed things swiftly.
The slow left-armer has been a revelation in his maiden series, with 18 wickets in two Tests, and needed just a couple of balls to dismiss Dom Sibley for two. It was his favoured arm ball that did the damage, skidding off the inside edge and through a yawning gap to hit middle.
Crawley took a different approach but suffered the same fate, dancing down the pitch to attack Patel but hoisting a top edge straight to mid-on for nine.
A worrying start became even more troubling when captain Joe Root fell immediately after the mid-session drinks break, Mohammed Siraj getting fair reward for a smart spell of seam bowling when he nipped one back into the back pad.
Things were far from easy for Jonny Bairstow, who began uncertainly, or Stokes, who attempted to leave his first ball but saw it spray off the toe end.
But they soon realised conditions were more amenable and the boundary count started to pick up as they seized on anything short of length. Stokes, in particular, appeared to be motivated after a terse exchange involving Siraj and Virat Kohli.
The introduction of Ravichandran Ashwin posed him a direct challenge, given his struggles against the off-spinner, but he responded by pounding him down the ground for six in his first over.
The pair put 44 before lunch but were only able to add another four in the afternoon before Siraj’s latest canny spell culminated in another lbw as he jagged one in to dismiss Bairstow for 28.
Stokes carried the England cause forward, heaving Washington Sundar for another six out of the rough and bringing up his half-century with a reverse-sweep for four.
But the all-rounder exacted full revenge, pinning Stokes lbw with the one that skidded straight on from round the wicket.
England’s lengthy batting order was needed at 121 for five, with Pope gritting his teeth in a hard-fought knock and Lawrence surviving after turning his first ball just in front of the close catcher at short-leg.
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