England were on course to end their long winless run with a first success in 11 Tests, as India stumbled in pursuit of a world-record run chase at the Ageas Bowl.
Alastair Cook’s team have failed to win a Test since clinching the Ashes at Durham almost a year ago, but here they have so far achieved an almost perfect template which leaves them needing just another six wickets on the final day.
The only shame, as Cook (70no) himself confirmed his much-needed return to form with his second half-century of the match and James Anderson marked his 32nd birthday with a five-wicket haul in India’s first-innings 330 all out, was that barely a third of this ground’s 17,500 capacity was present to see the tourists also then reach 112-4 in notional pursuit of 445 second time round.
A Sunday start, and therefore midweek finish, in this middle instalment of a hectic five-match series, has seen to it that – if England are to prevail today – they are likely to do so in front of another sparse crowd.
Cook unsurprisingly chose not to enforce the follow-on after Anderson (5-53) had taken two wickets in the space of six balls.
Then after the captain and Yorkshire’s Joe Root (56) helped to score 205-4 declared in 40.4 overs, spin came into play on a wearing surface as India faltered.
Anderson began proceedings on another glorious day by bouncing out Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Mohammed Shami, the India captain gloving an attempted hook behind and Jos Buttler ending the innings with another catch.
Cook was not tempted to put India straight back in again – preferring a rest for his bowlers, who needed 106.1 overs to take their first 10 wickets.
Instead, after Sam Robson edged some seam movement to Bhuvneshwar Kumar to slip, Cook provided solidity and county team-mates Gary Ballance and Root the necessary impetus.
Ballance appeared a little unlucky to be given out caught at short-leg off Ravindra Jadeja (3-52) with what was therefore the last ball of the morning.
But Ian Bell, like Ballance a first-innings centurion, kicked on too until Jadeja struck again by bowling him round his legs.
Root joined in with a perky 38-ball half-century, containing eight fours, before he was bowled attempting a sweep which ended a 99-run partnership and hastened England’s second declaration of the match.
By then Cook, who fell just five runs short of ending his long century drought three days ago, had doubled up with his second 50 here – at a remarkably similar tempo to his first, from 93 balls.
He calculated a minimum 132 overs insured adequately against the improbable and gave England significant prospect of levelling up at 1-1, with two to play.
Cook cashed in an early bonus via the athleticism and accuracy of Stuart Broad, who had just finished a five-over opening spell but was alert enough at square-leg to run out Murali Vijay with a direct hit.
The opener contributed to his own downfall, responding to a call from Shikhar Dhawan for a single from Chris Woakes’s first delivery only to run his bat in casually and an inch short – according to third umpire Rob Bailey – when Broad’s throw disturbed the bails.
Another bowling change brought near-instant success too an over later, when Moeen Ali struck with only his second ball as Cheteshwar Pujara edged a little extra bounce – and no turn – to be very well-caught by Chris Jordan at slip.
Moeen might easily have had Dhawan lbw soon afterwards, umpire Marais Erasmus deciding otherwise presumably because of doubt whether bat had made contact before pad in forward-defence.
It therefore fell to England’s second-choice part-time off-spinner Root to break a half-century stand between Dhawan and Virat Kohli when a modicum of turn had the left-hander edging to Jordan again.
Moeen was back, however, to see off Kohli who again played for spin rather than the ball sliding across him and got a thin edge behind to a juggling Buttler.
Anderson dropped a late caught-and-bowled chance to see off Rohit Sharma cheaply.
Nonetheless, England, who had begun this match in danger of chalking up their longest sequence without victory for 26 years, appeared to be back on track at last, thanks to much graft and skill.
“I think as days of cricket go, that’s one you want to have,” said Root afterwards.
“To get the two early wickets we did was fantastic, and then a lot of credit has to go to Cookie – the way he set the game up with the bat, and the way he judged his innings was pretty much down to a tee. We wanted to have a good session at them tonight, and give ourselves a good score on the board. The way he (cook) played meant that guys like me, Ian (Bell) and Gary (Ballance) could be a bit more free at the other end.
“To go on and take four wickets was fantastic.
“We wanted to get at least a couple, but to make such good inroads was really pleasing.
“We’re really hungry for a win. It’s been a long time now. That’s all we’re really bothered about.”
Scoreboard: Page 22