This Test is a slow burner, which may well ignite come Tuesday night but in the meantime there have been enough subplots to keep us all diverted. The match is progressing fast enough to avoid that modern rarity, a draw – so far in the 20 Tests when Joe Root has been in charge there have been just two of those. With two days remaining England lead by 154 with eight wickets in hand and the pitch is becoming ever more worn: a slow burner is becoming a slow turner.
The subplots, at least for English followers, centred on the opening batsmen. It may not have escaped your notice that Alastair Cook is playing his final Test match, though you would not have guessed that when watching him play; there is no sign of any demob-happiness. He batted in exactly the same way as in his previous 291 innings and that was very handy for England. He was still there at the end on 46.
However, Cook's entry on to the playing surface as England began their second innings was unusual. As he walked out alongside Keaton Jennings all the spectators at the Oval were on their feet and applauding throughout his journey to the middle. Here was another clip for Cook to cherish on long winter evenings along with the tributes gathered from (nearly) all the England players who have accompanied him on to the field.
For the moment he remained steely-eyed – and dry-eyed, one presumes – and began clipping the ball through square leg whenever the opportunity arose. So much for all the hullaballoo, this was just the sort of innings England needed to consolidate a modest lead of 40 runs. Obviously Cook should have announced his retirement sooner – since this is the best he has batted this year.
The same cannot be said of Jennings, who failed again. For the second time this summer he was out not playing a shot, to allow Mohammed Shami his much-deserved first wicket of the match. Shami was bowling around the wicket at the time and the ball jagged in to hit the top of middle and off stump, a miserable way to go.
This leaves Jennings with an unwanted record: no England opener has ever gone 18 innings without scoring a half-century. It has been a tough summer for openers, as Ed Smith pointed out at lunchtime when he hinted that Jennings might survive for the winter tour of Sri Lanka. Even so, an average of 18 in a five-Test series is not reassuring. There is surely a strong case to explore alternatives.
Cook's retirement might aid Jennings's survival but the oddity is that Surrey's Rory Burns, who has never been in a Test squad, must now be a strong candidate to tour. No doubt the selectors will intensify their scrutiny of him especially when Surrey are at Taunton in nine days' time on a surface that sometimes resembles what we anticipate in Galle in England's next Test match.
Moeen Ali, the latest number three, was a bit more convincing. He was dropped on 14 by KL Rahul, a rare aberration from the best slip fielder of the series, but soon after Moeen was bowled through the gate by a fine delivery from Ravindra Jadeja, who had a busy day at the Oval – earlier he had hit an unbeaten 86.
Enter Joe Root, who, on a pair, proceeded to produce a regal cameo until the close of play. Immediately he took 10 runs off Jadeja, all from deftly placed cut shots, and there were a couple of princely drives, one down the ground against Shami and an IVA Richards-style whip through midwicket against Jasprit Bumrah. Like Cook, Root was batting with more authority than at any time in the summer. An India pace attack that has performed heroically throughout the series began to look a little weary as two proper batsmen went about their business.
Mind you, wickets were also elusive in the morning, when Root soon rung the changes; he even allowed Adil Rashid an early bowl, his first of the innings, but Hanuma Vihari and Jadeja survived without too much bother. Two edged boundaries to third man by Jadeja did little to enhance Jimmy Anderson's joie de vivre while Vihari was more in control than on Saturday night and he managed to register a worthy half-century in his first Test innings.
The solitary wicket fell to the rejuvenated Moeen, who dismissed Vihari just before lunch. He found the outside edge and Jonny Bairstow held a fine catch, which applies to just about every one taken by a keeper when standing up to the wicket. After the break Ishant Sharma fell in identical fashion. At a guess these deliveries were off-breaks that declined to turn but Moeen, the least Macchiavellian of spinners, should not tell anybody. Instead he should allow any notion that he has discovered an extremely cunning drifter, "Mo's meanderer", to persist.
Soon afterwards, Jadeja reached his half-century, which is always an occasion. He dusted off his bat, now transformed in everyone’s mind into a gleaming sword, and then he performed his traditional dance, which requires iron wrists and considerable chutzpah. The England players did not seem to enjoy this much, but everyone else at the Oval did.
Shami, one of the least calculating batsmen on the planet, quickly holed out to Broad at long-on against Rashid. Next ball Bumrah was dropped by Jennings at silly point, which was an expensive error. Bumrah did not score any runs before he was run out but by then Jadeja had conjured another 32 from the last-wicket partnership, during which the taking of the second new ball proved to be a waste of money.