Chennai Test: Indian bowling right up Ali's Alley

Under the hot sun at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium, India wilted for a change as Moeen Ali struck his second century of the series and engaged in healthy partnerships with Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow to put England ahead on Day One of the fifth Test.

Moeen Ali celebrates his century on the opening day of the fifth Test against India on Friday.   -  Reuters

Under the hot sun at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium, India wilted for a change as >Moeen Ali struck his second century of the series and engaged in healthy partnerships with >Joe Root and >Jonny Bairstow to put England ahead on Day One of the fifth Test. Moeen stabilised England’s innings in the morning alongside a confident Root, and prevented India any look-in thereafter. At stumps, England was 284 for four, with left-armer Ravindra Jadeja the only successful spinner on a turning but slow track.

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Home boy Ravichandran Ashwin was greeted with a cheer by a large crowd, but he failed to give them further cheer as Root, Moeen and Bairstow played him without much uncertainty. The third spinner in India’s spin line-up also suffered a mediocre day; >Amit Mishra, chosen ahead of off-spinner Jayant Yadav, perhaps to generate extra variability in the type of spin, went wicketless in his 13 overs and gave away 52 runs, with six fours.

England gave a debut to Liam Dawson, a left-arm spinner. A boost to its bowling line-up was the inclusion of >Stuart Broad, who passed a fitness test to play his third Test of the tour.

Moeen came in after the fall of England’s openers, and played with fluidity. He used his feet judiciously against the spinners to put them off their lengths and score boundaries. He grew in confidence with time, and one of his boundaries after tea signalled the shift in momentum. He stepped down the track to Ashwin, and struck a lofted shot elegantly for a one-bounce four towards long-off.

Besides dancing down the track a few times, Moeen also employed the sweep shot. He struck three fours in this fashion, the shots sharp and forceful through the leg side. Early on in his unbeaten 120, he punished Mishra, smashing him through midwicket for four and cover-driving him soon after. So confident was he against Mishra that he even attempted the reverse-sweep, in the 52nd over.

He reached his fifth Test century and his fourth this year in the final hour of play, easing Mishra through extra-cover for a boundary to reach 99 and then taking a quick single. His presence at the crease allowed England to breathe easy despite the fall of Bairstow a couple of overs earlier, when the wicket-keeper smashed Jadeja straight to K. L. Rahul at an unconventional cover position.

Bairstow had put on 86 runs with Moeen for the fourth wicket, an alliance that frustrated India so much. The two nudged and flicked for singles as a rule and Moeen occasionally spotted a ball he could pounce on with his sweeps, square drives and even paddle sweeps. In contrast, Bairstow was firm at the crease with his front foot and went solidly back to negotiate the shorter balls. He also punished the spinners for erring in length with three sixes, all slog swept.

Another batsman who revelled in the sweep shot was Root. When England looked shaky after disciplined new-ball bowling from Umesh Yadav and >Ishant Sharma, who replaced Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the XI for this game, Root offered respite with his surety at the crease. Among his 10 fours hit to various parts of the ground were three slog sweeps, one of which nicely bisected the deep mid-wicket and fine-leg fielders off Ashwin. But just when he looked good to get his second century in the series, he fell for 88 via another attempted slog sweep, with the ball brushing his bat and going through to the wicket-keeper.

However, the ease with which runs could be got was evident only after lunch, when Root and Moeen began to open up. Root reached his fifty via a sweep for four off Jadeja, and followed it with another four through mid-wicket in the same over.

It took England towards safety after it had been reduced to 21 for two in the 13th over. The departure of Keaton Jennings and Alastair Cook had brought about a careful and slow approach by Root and Moeen. Ishant’s first spell read an astonishing 5-4-1-1 — the wicket that of Keaton Jennings, who was lured with a full delivery well wide of off-stump to nick behind, after unrelenting accuracy for a length of time that prevented any leeway to the batsmen.

Cook fell to Jadeja for the fifth time in the series, edging to >Virat Kohli at slip. Jadeja created two more chances in the day, the first of which could have dismissed Moeen for 0 after he had flicked uppishly and was not caught by >K. L. Rahul. The other reprieve was enjoyed by Bairstow, who had stepped down the track and was completely beaten by the flight, but Parthiv Patel could not gather the ball.

India came close a couple of other times to get wickets, but the opportunities were few and far between. The new ball was taken only in the 85th over, but it made no difference, as new batsman Ben Stokes looked confident, alongside a set Moeen.

India has bounced back a couple of times in the series after allowing England to pile up huge totals. So, this is not an unfamiliar scenario. But it makes one thing clear — India will have to dig deep yet again to wriggle itself out of this situation.

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