London: And so on to Day Five. When 13 wickets fell on Day One or 20 had gone down by the end of Day Two, it seemed a world away, yet here we are, the fourth Test of a gripping series set to go right down to the wire.
There have been heroes on either side, England have certainly been thankful for the return of Chris Woakes, India once again leaning heavily on the contribution of Rohit Sharma at the top of the order. And yet, remarkably for a man whose 127 remains the only hundred of the match, he might well not end up the star performer for his side – that crown arguably rests on the head of Shardul Thakur.
Much has been made of India’s vertiginous tail in this series, at times they have appeared to have up to four batsmen whose natural home seems at the very bottom of the order, a particularly perilous proposition when your middle order has been as misfiring as India’s in this series. With that, presumably at least partly, in mind the tourists recalled Shardul – it has been a move that has paid off handsomely.
India were 117/6 when Shardul entered in the first innings, staring down the all too real barrel of another first day, first-innings capitulation. He would last only 36 balls, there were few however that he wasted.
By the time he departed, 73 runs had been added to the total, 57 of them his, the fastest ever Test fifty in England notched along the way – India crucially kept just about still in the reckoning.
It was an extraordinary knock, a brilliant lower-order counterattack that left England’s bowlers looking shellshocked, each of the three sixes sensationally dismissive in their own separate ways. First Craig Overton was driven over mid-off and over the rope, later Chris Woakes whipped over a wide long-on, and finally, to bring up his half-century in flamboyant style, Shardul pulled Ollie Robinson contemptuously over deep square leg.
Not bad for a man who, after 65 first-class games, has a batting average of just 16.38.
Perhaps though, I hear some of you cry, anyone can blast their way to a quick fifty now and again – no matter that it was India’s top score of the innings.
As if primarily to prove those doubters wrong at the very first time of asking, out strode Shardul on Day Four – India’s skipper the man heading in the opposite direction. The picture was not as bleak as the first innings, but with his side 296/5, a lead of 197, a contribution was definitely required for India to retain much hope of victory in the match.
Once again he did not disappoint, by the time he fell, ironically to Joe Root having seen off the full force of England’s actual bowlers, 116 runs had been added to India’s score, their lead now a much more defendable 313.
This was a knock with a little, if perhaps not a lot, more guile than the first innings, favouring the straight drive, if not always finding the middle of the bat with it. There was however little problem with finding the boundary rope, each precious run batting India closer to impregnability and perhaps even more crucially putting more overs into the already tired legs of Messrs Anderson and Robinson – both must now be in danger of missing out on the final Test later this week.
Such is the beauty of Test cricket that we go into the final day of this game with all four results possible, perhaps England’s batsmen will find the resolve that has for so long deserted them and bring their side home, perhaps India’s bowlers will carry the day – one thing though is for certain, without the efforts of Shardul they would never have even got this far.