Another day, another dolour. After eight weeks and six days on tour, this weary, wounded England team staggered into their sixth, and last, Test of the winter. The good news is they won the toss and cobbled together their highest score since their first innings of this India series, the bad that it was 205.
If they could point to improvements in the way some of the batsmen went about their work, it was undeniable, too, that some of their failings felt pretty familiar. A little bad luck, a couple of technical flaws and a lot of confused thinking added up to an underwhelming total and the unavoidable sense that their limitations had been exposed by a good attack on a tricky pitch.
By stumps, India were 24 for one, 181 runs behind, and it was hard to avoid the feeling that, fight as they might – Jimmy Anderson bowled five maidens in a row – England’s attack were already up against it.
The team selection felt a little desperate, the all-in thinking of a man holding a losing hand in the small hours. It brought Dan Lawrence back to bat at No 7 and left England with a four-man attack, one of them, Dom Bess, only just dropped, and another Ben Stokes, who had bowled 15 overs in the three previous matches and was suffering with a stomach bug. It turned out Jofra Archer was unavailable for selection because his elbow problem had flared up again, which feels foreboding too.
India, on the other hand, simply swapped around two of their seamers, replacing Jasprit Bumrah with Mohammed Siraj, who bowled so well, with such waspish pace and swing, they were arguably stronger for it.
You could feel England’s weariness, see it in the twitchiness of the openers when Virat Kohli brought Axar Patel into the attack after five overs. Patel duly dismissed both of them in his first two overs. Dom Sibley was bowled off the inside edge (he walked off muttering to himself under his breath, all that talk, all those thoughts, all that time working out how to go about it, and he missed a straight one) while Zak Crawley was caught at mid-on as he came skipping down the pitch to hit the ball down the ground. Crawley had done something similar to four of the five previous balls, so Patel saw him coming.
When Siraj got Joe Root lbw with the first ball after a drinks break, England were 30 for three and on the verge of another collapse. Root’s form on this tour has run in inverse proportion to the cares of captaincy. Which speaks, among other things, to the lack of support from his senior teammates.
Two of them, Jonny Bairstow and Stokes, tried to make amends. Stokes was doubly determined after Kohli made a point of picking a row with him because he had words with Siraj after fencing at a short ball. A flurry of fours followed, some off the edge of the bat, others off its middle, as well as one glorious six over long-on off the second ball he faced from Ravichandran Ashwin.
Stokes’s confidence seemed to rub off on Bairstow, who was just beginning to rediscover some of the touch he showed in Sri Lanka when Siraj got him for 28 with a very similar sort of delivery to the one that did for Root (it was given out lbw on review, as an umpire’s call on height, which was odd, since the umpire seemed to think Bairstow had been caught behind when he made the decision).
That dismissal turned out to tell the story of England’s innings. Bairstow had faced 67 balls, so had got himself in, but was not able to go on to play the match-defining innings the team needed. Stokes, Ollie Pope and Lawrence did likewise.
Stokes went for 55, a fine innings while it lasted, which turned into a duel with India’s third spinner, Washington Sundar, who beat him repeatedly on the outside edge and dismissed him with one that went straight on past a tired defensive shot.
Pope played better than he had all tour, using his feet to come down the pitch and his bat to smother the spin. Lawrence, granted the freedom of batting so low down, was looser and played more shots.
Their 45-run partnership gave a glimpse of the future of English batting and, while it lasted, it looked pretty handsome. But Pope was done by a bit of bad luck when the ball ricocheted off his inside edge between his legs, on to his back calf and looped up to be caught at short-leg, and Lawrence by a bit of bad judgment, as he threw a yahoo drive at Patel and was stumped trying to hit a boundary to bring up his fifty.
Ben Foakes, who batted so stubbornly in the past two Tests, was worked over by Ashwin. He and Bess, batting down at No 9, added four runs between them.
It will go down as a litany of missed opportunities, much, you guess, like the series itself.