England got everything they wanted on the final day at the Oval – victory by 118 runs, a last stirring send-off for the retiring Alastair Cook, and a record-breaking 564th Test wicket for James Anderson.
But they were made to wait. And fret.
The day lasted far longer than they might have liked, and there was a scary rhythm to it. Eerie quiet followed by a CRACK. The sound of mouths hitting the floor. Another CRACK. The beating of hearts against chests. CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. India came to the ground as the team that needed to survive 90 overs. But by tea, they were taking a proper stab at a target of 464. Nothing in the vicinity had ever been chased in the history of Test cricket.
The equation read 166 off 33 overs, and there were two centurions at the crease. KL Rahul got there abandoning most of his caution. It had served him poorly in England, leading him to average 16 until the start of this Test. Attacking the ball, on the other hand, brought him 149 runs. Rishabh Pant might have come to the same conclusion after recording a 29-ball duck in Southampton. He reached his maiden Test hundred off only 117 deliveries, with a six over deep midwicket. India started to believe.
Madness doesn’t begin to cover what they did in the 44.3 overs they were together, just as madness doesn’t begin to cover the ball that broke that 204-run partnership. Adil Rashid – for long the forgotten asset – ran in from around the wicket at the right-handed Rahul, and pitched the ball in the rough some three feet away from the line of the stumps. The batsman cleared his front leg and prepared to flick the ball away, except it spun. It spun viciously, ridiculously, and unbelievably to tip the bail down from the off stump.
England were effectively a bowler short – Stuart Broad was on the field with strapping on his left side, a souvenir from taking Jasprit Bumrah bouncer on the ribs – and it almost seemed like they were content to wait for the second new ball to make a play. Their two most prolific wicket-takers bowled only nine of the first 49 overs. The others resorted to bouncers – a strange tactic on a slow pitch. There were even times when Rahul batted without a slip.
India had no pressure to deal with as they ransacked 131 runs at 4.37 per over in the middle session. But there was just too much time on the clock. And too many runs to go after. It all ended – in rather slapstick fashion – with No. 10 farming the strike from No. 11, and two balls later getting his middle stump knocked back. Anderson roared in triumph – he had just deposed Glenn McGrath as the most prolific fast bowler in Test cricket – and ran into the arms of his team-mates. They asked him to lead them off the field, but he insisted that Cook should get that honour, and then choked up during an interview when asked if he would miss his mate.
There was – realistically – only one winner possible after Cook and Joe Root had struck fairytale hundreds. But it was fun as Rahul and Pant made everyone think about what if. They got together at 121 for 5 with more than two sessions left to play. But both men took the match situation and smuggled it out of sight. Nobody who watched their partnership would have realised that they were playing for the team that was behind in the match, and the series.
Rahul launched fast bowlers over the top. The lack of pace in the pitch assisted him in fixing a problem against the inswinger, as did his adjusting his front foot stride, taking it down the pitch instead of across, and slowing down his bat-speed, at least while defending. But whenever there was width, he did not hold back. There was a six off Ben Stokes that was downright majestic, standing tall on the back foot and cutting the ball to smithereens.
Pant looked special when he flayed spin along the ground, and weird when he hit in the air. He just puts so much into the swing that he literally falls over, meaning even his lofted drives over cover end up looking like skewed sweep shots. A much more proper rendition of it, over midwicket, crowned him the first Indian wicketkeeper to hit a century in England. These two were India’s top-scorers in the 2018 IPL. A few months on, they put on India’s highest partnership in a Test series in England.
But the lower order could do only so much to mask a scorecard that once read 2 for 3. India’s biggest problem in this series – especially when it was alive – was a lack of runs from their top order. Rahul’s century comes as hope for the future, but it won’t quite wash over the fact that this team has once again fallen short away from home.
Scorecard: England 332 (Buttler 89, Cook 71, Moeen 50, Jadeja 4-79) and 423 for 8 dec (Cook 147, Root 125, Vihari 3-37) beat India 292 (Jadeja 86*, Vihari 56, Moeen 2-50) and 345 (Rahul 149, Pant 114, Anderson 3-45) by 118 runs