Centuries from Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes give England advantage

India finish day two on 63 without loss after England make 537

First Test day two: England 537 v India 63-0

If Dhaka and Chittagong offered a feast for bowlers, Rajkot, at least for two days, has delivered a famine. No demons have surfaced under the Gujarat sun, though one of the treats of playing cricket in India is that pitches can deteriorate dramatically on the fourth and fifth day.

Hence it was only a mild disappointment to the England team that they were unable to dislodge either of the Indian openers as they made 63 in the 23 overs bowled at them in the final session. Moeen Ali made two balls spin sharply and the outcome both times was an infuriating four byes rather than a coveted breakthrough.

However, any disappointment was tempered by the way in which England’s batsmen have bounced back from the humiliation of losing 10 for 64 inside two hours in Dhaka in their last Test match. They must be content with 537, whatever the surface. On Thursday it was the turn of Ben Stokes to be the foundation when hitting a century of unusual contrasts; he was at various times majestic, tentative, frenetic and exhausted.


Most importantly, Stokes, now such an integral part of the team, ensured that the hard work of Joe Root and Moeen on the first day would not be wasted. He became the third century-maker in the innings. As a consequence it is India rather than England who would currently be happy to leave Rajkot with the series all square.

Not since 1961 in Kanpur have England had three centurions in a Test match in India. Then Geoff Pullar, Ken Barrington and Ted Dexter set to work to save the game when following on. One assumes the pitch there declined to disintegrate at all as England finished the match on 497 for five from 184 overs.

Here Moeen, 99 not out overnight, took three balls to reach three figures for the fourth time in Test cricket. An alert Stokes called him for a single as Moeen dropped the ball at his feet and so his bat could be raised towards the pavilion without too much agonising. Stokes would have to wait another two and a half hours before he reached his century, also his fourth in Tests, though he looked too shattered for any elaborate celebrations.

Moeen hinted at something special when he unfurled three thoroughbred boundaries in one over against Umesh Yadav. But then he shouldered arms against Mohammed Shami only for his off-stump to be jettisoned towards wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha.

For a while Stokes was magnificent, sure in defence and attack. His bat came down gun-barrel straight sending drives to the sightscreen whether Ravi Ashwin or Shami were bowling.

His 50 from 89 balls would be a textbook effort, superior to much of what followed. There was barely a false shot and several of awesome power.

Meanwhile, Jonny Bairstow settled quickly. He drove floated leg-breaks from Amit Mishra into the stands at long off and long on with the ease of a dog-walker hitting a ball with a tennis racket into the undergrowth on a gentle early morning ramble.

The runs flowed freely, no matter who was bowling. Then Stokes hit a sticky patch. On 60 and 61 he was dropped by Saha behind the stumps off Yadav, whose ability to find reverse swing from a ball only 20 overs old will have interested the England camp. Shami also provided a threat and he ended a quick-fire partnership of 99 when Bairstow followed an out-swinger to give Saha an easier chance.

In the morning session England had added 139 for the loss of two wickets – they would not have scored so fast in Kanpur 55 years ago. They stalled after the interval when Chris Woakes hung out his bat to Ravindra Jadeja. Nor did Adil Rashid offer Stokes much reassurance; this may have contributed to a frantic 20 minutes when Stokes was in the 90s. Three times projected big hits against the spinners lofted the ball conveniently between fielders.

Rashid holed out to mid-on against Jadeja in a manner he would rather forget but the advent of Zafar Ansari at No 10 seemed to restore sanity. He batted at eight in his first Test innings in Dhaka, was peremptorily dropped to 10 for his second and that is where he remained here. He has spent half of his first-class career as an opening batsman and he demonstrated why in partnership with Stokes. Perhaps a bit of healthy competition will help galvanise these gifted lower-order batsmen.

Ansari was on hand to congratulate Stokes when he square cut the boundary that took him to three figures. Thereafter Stokes had little energy for any extravagant shots and it seemed an effort for him to run. Fortunately the problem stemmed from cramp rather than anything more ominous. In the end he was caught down the leg side from an innocuous-looking delivery from Yadav.

Like Root and Moeen before him, Stokes had thrown down the gauntlet to the Indian attack, in particular their spinners. There was no sign that England’s middle order was intimidated by their reputations, especially on a surface so much more benign than those encountered in Bangladesh. All three batsmen had been aggressive in intent, but seldom reckless.

Ansari stayed long enough to deliver a strong case for an immediate promotion while contributing a measured innings of 32, which ended when he missed a sweep shot, thereby giving Mishra his solitary wicket. Ansari had batted long enough and with sufficient composure to establish that he is an imposter at No 10. There will be ample opportunity over the next few days to gauge whether he is an imposter with the ball.

(Guardian service)