Pitch papers over cracks as Moeen Ali and England toil against India - Chris Waters

IF ONE ball summed up this Test match so far it was when Moeen Ali came on to bowl his opening delivery in the India second innings.

Moeen Ali has endured a tough return (Picture: Getty Images)

The score was 12-0 after four overs.

The lead stood at 207.

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Olly Stone had just been pulled out of the attack after bowling two overs in conditions ill-suited to pace bowlers.

Ravi Ashwin tormented England with five wickets. (Picture: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Moeen, for whom conditions were perfect as a spinner, trotted in and tossed up a gentle non-spinning long-hop which Rohit Sharma hit easily for four, gently opening the bat-face to caress the ball to the cover boundary.

Even accounting for the fact that it was the first delivery of a spell, when many a bowler sends down a loosener, it was a rank freebie that somehow encapsulated England’s display.

For say what you want about the pitch, which has clearly not been a great advert for five-day cricket – even if it is actually quite refreshing to see spinners brought into the game a bit more (no one bats an eyelid, after all, when the pitch is a road).

The long and short of it is that England have been outplayed by India thus far, just as the opposite was true when England won the opening Test at the same Chennai ground by 227 runs.

Joe Root (captain) of England needs to bail the tourists out (Picture: Pankaj Nangia/ Sportzpics for BCCI)

This time, India’s spinners have out-bowled England’s, their batsmen have out-batted England’s, and the situation at the end of day two, with India 54-1 in their second innings, a lead of 249, was an accurate reflection of what we have witnessed.

To be fair to Moeen, he bowled much better after that opening delivery and with greater control than he did in the first innings.

That was to be expected, however, considering that he went at almost 4.5 runs per over in the first innings across 29 overs and had not played a first-class game since September 2019.

Moeen will surely improve as he gets more overs under his belt but questions have to be asked of England’s team selection and whether they were right to recall him in place of Dom Bess.

At the moment, you would have to say that there is no evidence that it was the right decision – only, perhaps, that it was the easy decision.

Moeen has certainly looked every inch like a man who has had precious little red-ball bowling, with England grateful for the superior control of left-arm spinner Jack Leach.

Leach is staking a strong claim now to be England’s No 1 spinner going forward, no matter Moeen’s superior skill as a batsman.

Moeen’s friendly long-hop to Rohit Sharma at the start of India’s second innings stood out for the simple reason that there were no looseners from India’s spinners, no “gimme” deliveries to help batsmen on their way.

Indeed, Ravichandran Ashwin, who would have played for Yorkshire last year but for the pandemic, was predictably on the money as he achieved the apparent formality of a 
five-wicket haul, finishing 
with 5-43 from 23.5 overs.

Axar Patel backed him up encouragingly on debut, collecting 2-40 from 20 overs, as England were dismissed for 134 in reply to India’s first innings 329, the hosts having begun day two on 300-6.

India probably got 75-100 runs too many in their first innings when Sharma, it will be noted, scored more runs (161) than England put together. Take out that innings and it would actually still be an interesting match.

Stone did well to finish with 3-47 from 15.5 overs, but India should not have scored more than 250 in the spinning conditions, with Moeen conceding 128 runs.

Granted, he picked up four wickets in the process, but he cannot have been pleased with his overall performance.

As well as Ashwin bowled yesterday, England’s batting was poor.

Even Joe Root – caught top-edging a sweep off Patel – was not blameless, the England captain’s score of six bringing to an end a remarkable run of three successive first innings centuries, and massive ones at that – 228. 186, 218.

Only Ben Foakes and, to a lesser extent, Ollie Pope could hold their heads high, Foakes top-scoring with an unbeaten 42 in which he displayed the requisite application and technique in two hours and 15 minutes at the crease.

Playing only his sixth Test, and his first for just over two years, Foakes showed why he has 10 first-class hundreds to his name – including one on his Test debut against Sri Lanka – and, it might be added, why there should be no recall for Jos Buttler into the place left vacated by Buttler’s absence from these final three Tests.

Foakes kept well overall, although he should have stumped Rohit Sharma, on 20, in the second innings when the batsman advanced down the track to Moeen.

At the same time, Foakes has been one of the few positives for England so far – not least in terms of his solid temperament.

Less impressive has been the umpiring, with sundry blunders committed despite the assistance of technology.

A basic grasp of the game’s rules would help, such as when a batsman is or is not playing a shot at the ball, with Sharma also surviving when Moeen had him lbw only for the umpire to absurdly adjudge that a stroke was offered.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, it should prove irrelevant. India finished day two so far ahead that, if this was an athletics event, they would have lapped their opponents already.

England’s problems with spin – bowling it consistently to world-class standard, and batting against it effectively as a collective – have been ruthlessly exposed.

It is what happens, in fact, when you mess about with the County Championship and push it into the season’s margins like an afterthought, but that, as they say, is another story...

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