When a team lose all 10 of their first-innings wickets in 150 minutes, as England did on Sunday, it seems unfair to attribute an inexorable slide towards defeat to the batsmen.
The severe scale of the collapse — the third time they have lost all 10 wickets in a session in 24 Tests across 22 months — means England require a miracle to avoid that defeat. India are not short on time to cut England’s lead to 2-1.
And yet there is blame beyond the batsmen because England failed to learn from past errors and selected the wrong bowlers, who then failed to back up Joe Root’s bold call to insert India at the toss.
Given the bowling conditions on the first day, particularly early on, to take just six wickets — one of them to spin, and one of them to the day’s final ball — was well below par, with Ben Stokes particularly poor. By the time James Anderson and Stuart Broad cleaned up the last four wickets for six runs on the second morning, the damage was done; 329 looked a handy score, given the conditions overhead, even if the pitch is a little slow.
India’s bowlers learned faster than England’s. A poor spell before lunch on Sunday allowed England to put on 54 for the first wicket — their highest opening stand this year — but Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah were excellent after and Hardik Pandya followed up in spectacular fashion.
The major takeaway from England’s tough winter in the Antipodes was that, particularly overseas, four right-arm seamers of similar pace and not wildly different styles would not do on flatter pitches with a Kookaburra ball which does not aid swing. Variety was required.
Jake Ball, Tom Curran, even Craig Overton and Mark Wood, both of whom have done well in patches, were left endangered. It took one more defeat — their eighth Test without a win — by Pakistan at Lord’s to hammer the point home. So the selectors brought in Sam Curran, the Surrey left-armer, and he provided a breath of fresh air coming on after Anderson and Broad.
Curran’s left-arm angle automatically makes him different but so does his natural full length which gives the ball the best chance of swinging. At Test level, Curran enjoyed immediate success, being named man of the match at Edgbaston, while England won his first three Tests.
The 20-year-old did well at Lord’s too but because Ben Stokes was rushed back in and Chris Woakes had scooped a man-of-the-match award more recently, the junior man made way and was sent to the Oval. There he made 40 for Surrey against Lancashire (England’s top scorer, Jos Buttler, hit 39).
Root lamented the toughness of the decision on the game’s eve. Now he should be lamenting its wrongness.
It is easy to see why they opted for this attack. Anderson, Broad, Stokes and Woakes are experienced and classy, especially at home. But the blend and balance just does not quite look right and Curran has been missed.