England batting coach Graham Thorpe stopped short of criticising the pitch on day two of the second Test, instead urging touring batsmen to put more faith in their plans after they were skittled for 134 in their first innings.
India finished day three of the second Test on 54 for one which, combined with their first innings of 329 gives them a lead of 249 with three full days to go. On a pitch that was already turning on day one, Sunday saw the tourists fumble in the dust for 59.5 overs with only four batsmen making it to double figures as spin accounted for eight of their 10 wickets. Ravichandran Ashwin was the pitch with five for 43, while Axar Patel’s two for 40 on debut included in-form skipper Joe Root.
With the hosts looking more than likely to square the series with two Tests to go, the pitch at the Chepauk Stadium came under heavy scrutiny. Many observers, including pundits and former players, called foul play.
As a batsman who played 12 of his 100 Tests in Asia where he averaged 47, Thorpe is no stranger to these kinds of surfaces. When asked outright if he felt the pitch was “fit” for Test cricket, the left-hander did as he used to by negotiating a tricky situation.
“It’s a very challenging surface, that’s what I’m going to say,” offered Thorpe. “In terms of me commenting on the pitch, I think that’s for someone above me to look at. It’s obviously taken turn early in the game and it was a very good toss to win, to bat on day.
“We can only deal with what’s in front of us today. Sometimes when you’re playing at home, you certainly have an advantage. You only have to look at India’s home record to see that. Their spinners are experienced at bowling on these surfaces, we’ve got some players here for the first time and we have to keep that in perspective.”
He went on to explain how England had hoped to approach the pitch after seeing how the ball was already turning on Saturday. Indeed, his disappointment rests with those who were unable to come good out in the middle albeit under pressure and against high-quality spin bowling.
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“There are some balls in the pitch which you might not be able to do too much about. We talked about having a plan – being clear in the areas you can attack, rotate strike and the areas you can defend. The guys have plans but they didn’t happen for us today. There were some good deliveries in there, some unfortunate dismissal, some good catches. We didn’t get the partnerships going.
“There’s an element of being able to pick the length well. That puts you in position to score or trust your defence if you can’t score. That’s how we try and simplify the plan. There were some today who didn’t execute, some good deliveries and some flying catches from India.”
Only Ben Foakes showed the necessary clarity, finishing 42 not out in an innings that got England beyond the follow-on target. It was a continuation of the form he showed in Sri Lanka during the 2018 tour, where he averaged 69.25 with 225 runs including a century on debut.
Speaking at stumps, Foakes spoke of the challenges he faced when walking out to the middle with his side reeling on 52 for five in the 24th over.
“It was extremely difficult. Obviously, they are a pretty high-quality spin outfit and the pitch was playing a few tricks so all in all it was a really tough day. I was just trying to play for the ball that wasn’t going to rag, try to play within my limits, and play the ball late basically. Not get too far outside my bubble.”
The prospect of a chastening defeat to square the series is very much on the cards. The kind that often sees a tour call into disarray. England, though, do have a 227-run victory from last week to nourish them, not to mention a six-match run of victories in Asia up to this point.
There is still another innings to bat once the India second innings is over, whether England take the remaining nine wickets or Virat Kohli decides he has enough to push on for the win. There is every chance he prolongs the agony to further blunt English enthusiasm. Regardless of how things play out from here, Thorpe says the onus is on ensuring mood remains upbeat and minds are focussed on what is to come.
“Our job to keep them level in the dressing room. We have to work hard in the first Test. We mustn’t get too down. Look at things we could have done better. Yes, we know the pitch has challenged us and look forward and enjoy the challenge of the next innings.”
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