England forced to toil hard on lifeless pitch
Indian opener Murali Vijay makes unbeaten century at Trent Bridge
India opening batsman Murali Vijay survives a run out attempt on the way to scoring a century in the first Test against England at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Day one close: India 259-4
England had a very good first day of the series, given the circumstances, perhaps a wicket away from excellent, having been put in the field by MS Dhoni. A cultured unbeaten century from the Indian opener Murali Vijay, brisk at the outset although considerably less so later, was his fourth in a six-year career and first outside his homeland although such is the state of the pitch, it may as well have been Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mohali where he made the others, all against Australia.
No matter how the match pans out, the pitch is a shocker. If Lord’s and Headingley offered turgid surfaces for the series against Sri Lanka, then this dry, brown offering is playing the slowest of them all. If the summer continues in this manner, then by the time the caravan reaches the Oval for the final Test, the new ball will be leaving a trail in the dust as if a snail had travelled through. By then bowlers on both sides will be on their knees.
Towards the end of the morning session, when Liam Plunkett was trying heroically to thrash some sort of tentative response from the middle of the pitch, two successive bouncers lobbed gently over the back of the batsman, and bounced again before they reached Matt Prior behind the stumps. The bowler put his hands on his hips and shook his head in resigned fashion. Bowling is meant to be hard work but not slave labour.
To understand why pitches are produced like this, look no further than the bank balance of those staging the games, the top dressing of the pitches over the last decade or so, and the deadening use of the heavy roller, something that most counties, including Nottinghamshire, are shunning in the interest of maintaining competitive pitches.
There are a few cod theories around, relating to the new super-drainage sucking moisture, but this is faddy stuff, a modicum of truth stretched too far. The outflelds are lush, and groundsmen will tell of high water tables beneath (a few barren outfields would help the cause of the bowlers, at least aiding some reverse swing). But those grounds that are bidding considerable money to stage games do not want to run the risk of a shortened game: the ubiquitous “chief executive’s pitch” rules.
That England were able, then, to restrict India to 259 for four in the day, fewer than three runs per over on a shirtfront, does them credit. The four seamers – with Ben Stokes preferred to Chris Jordan – bowled the appropriate lengths, with Stuart Broad outstanding in his economy. There were two wickets for Jimmy Anderson, which took him past 50 on this particular ground, although he haemorrhaged runs, largely to an unprotected third-man area.
This though is the conundrum: place a third man and he has to come from elsewhere while not guaranteeing that every ball angled or edged there will only concede a single. Perhaps Anderson could do without his fine leg, but this then makes it difficult for him to think about an inswinger.
Stokes meanwhile was adequate and Plunkett wholehearted and fully deserving of the wicket of Ajinkya Rahane, caught by Alastair Cook at a sort of silly-extra-cover as the batsman under-edged an attempted hook on to his body.
This was bold intuitive captaincy from Cook, who had a good confident hard-working day that also brought a wicket for Anderson when, with a short mid-on in place, Cheteshwar Pujara, who had looked immoveable before lunch, chipped the bowler’s second delivery after the interval away to the right of Ian Bell who took a spectacular diving catch.
It saw the commencement of England’s best spell of the day, an hour in which only 18 runs came for two wickets from 14 overs, the first two hours having conceded 106 for the single early loss of the left-handed Shikhar Dhawan, superbly caught by Prior one-handed, and poached from first slip.
For that hour, for some reason, the ball reversed, not a lot but just sufficient to give Anderson and Broad something with which to work and keep the batsmen honest. In fact, England succeeded in making a double strike for in the following over, Broad moved one only slightly away from the new batsman, Virat Kohli, who – perhaps sensing the same productive third-man area that had given Vijay such a launchpad to his innings – hung his bat, and edged low to second slip where Bell, the designated replacement for Jordan in that position, took a second smart catch.
Vijay’s unbeaten 122 was an innings of contrasting parts, containing 20 fours and a six struck straight off Moeen Ali as the second new ball approached. For the most part he exploited the offside, angling to third man of course, but driving square, through extra cover, and punching straight, a rapid outfield lending full value for shots.
There was neatness off his toes too. Somehow though, England found a way of tying him down, for although he was able to reach his half-century well before lunch, from 68 balls, the remaining runs required a further 226 deliveries. In the process, having hit Broad just to the onside of straight to move to 99, it required a further 14 nervous deliveries to reach three figures.
Only the intervention of Dhoni himself in the final two hours gave the innings some impetus and prevented it stagnating altogether. The Indian captain has been a constant thorn in England flesh, and here he was no less so, although had Gary Ballance’s throw from deepish midwicket hit direct as Vijay scampered the single that gave him his hundred, the fifth-wicket partnership, at that point worth 71, would have been cut off early.