England’s apparent reinvention as a fearless chasing team in Test cricket this summer is heading for its stiffest examination following a lively third day in which not even Jonny Bairstow’s latest celestial century could prevent India taking full control.
By stumps, as Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad prepared to plunge their weary feet into ice and an already thinned-out crowd headed for the exits, the tourists had reached 125 for three from 45 overs. Cheteshwar Pujara had grafted his way to an unbeaten 50, Rishabh Pant sat an ominous 30 not out, and the 132‑run lead they had earlier secured by rolling England for 284 had swelled to 257. But for Bairstow raiding his fifth Test century of the year and the 11th of his career – a rollicking 106 from 140 balls that featured 14 fours and two mighty sixes – the situation would have been worse.
As it is, barring a miracle in the morning, England face a target well in excess of those blitzed against New Zealand (279, 299 and 296) plus a bowling attack that, with all due respect to Trent Boult et al, is superior.
There appears little chance of any of them approaching it like Pujara either. The right-hander lost his opening partner, Shubman Gill, in the first over of the innings when Anderson found the youngster’s edge but responded impressively, getting his head down for a 139‑ball vigil that sucked the life out of England’s bowlers.
There were a couple more wins for the hosts along the way. Hanuma Vihari drove Broad to third slip on 11, while Virat Kohli’s crisp 20 was shut down when Ben Stokes found his edge with a brute and Joe Root plucked a one-handed catch at slip after Sam Billings had fumbled. Overall, however, it became increasingly hard to see past India turning last year’s 2-1 scoreline into a first series win on these shores since 2007.
Bairstow aside, England’s first innings could easily be written off as the downside of their attacking brio, with the dismissal of Stokes, slapping Shardul Thakur to mid-off after being dropped there to end a crazed 25, a case in point. This would be slightly underplaying an Indian bowling performance that met the threat head on and was straight from the 2021 playbook by way of intensity.
That the tourists lead this protracted series owes much to a couple of ferocious performances from their quicks at Lord’s and the Oval. Here at Edgbaston, 10 months on from outgunning their hosts, it was like the bearded triumvirate of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj had never left the country, even if the latter took a bit of tap en route to figures of four for 66 from 11.3 overs.
England began the day on 84 for five, 332 runs behind, and Bairstow and Stokes repeatedly played at fresh air during the early exchanges. It was only after the former found himself exchanging a few choice words with Kohli – a man whose record as the former captain will be embellished further should India get over the line this week – that the ball started to find the middle of his bat.
This is the year of the Bair, of course, and the positions from which he has scored his five centuries, rather than a sledge or two, feel more relevant. In Sydney he strode out at 36 for four, in Antigua it was 48 for four. And during this golden summer to date, having moved to No 5, they have come from 93 for three in Nottingham, 17 for three in Leeds and 44 for three here; when the chips are down, Bairstow fires.
Having started on 12 from 47 balls first thing, Bairstow suddenly began to pump length balls to all parts using those muscular forearms and the occasional whip of the wrists.The Hollies Stand was entranced, the medium-fast bowling of Thakur was deliberately targeted when the impeccable Bumrah and Shami grazed, and the Yorkshireman might have reached three figures before lunch had rain not swept in.
By this stage, 91 not out, Bairstow had Sam Billings for company, Stokes having once again tried to send a message to his charges by thrashing from the off.
Someone probably should tell the all-rounder his point has been heard and he is a far cleaner striker when he gives himself a sighter. But not even a horror drop by Thakur on 18 – the ball hanging in the air for what felt like an eternity – could convince him otherwise.
Perhaps Bairstow could have a word. The right-hander has exactly 500 runs at a strike-rate of 106 this summer and yet scarcely looked wild along the way (bar those eyes). Having overturned an lbw decision on 89 before the break, he then whipped the first ball of the afternoon for four off Thakur and muscled a couple more in the all-rounder’s following over to spark the latest edition of his trademark celebration.
But the return of Shami broke the spell – and a sixth-wicket stand of 92 with Billings – when Bairstow tried to cream his first delivery through the covers only to find Kohli at slip behind.
Thereafter, from 241 for seven, Siraj wiped out the remaining three wickets despite a couple of counter‑punches from Billings (36) and Matt Potts (19). By stumps, however, India’s grip on proceedings was vice-like.