If you had seen nothing of this Test and had to pick, based on this description, which side was which, you would almost certainly have guessed wrong. In the Southampton sunshine on day four, it was England not India who imposed a trial by spin, winning a Test and a series in the process.
This is proving to be a series for defying old tropes. However, while it has gone against the precedent set by history, the success and skill of India’s fast bowlers in this series has not come as a total shock. On the other hand, there cannot be many who can honestly claim not to be a little surprised to witness an England win carved out via a comprehensive victory in the battle between the teams’ spinners.
However surprising, that is the reality of the fourth Test, Moeen Ali besting Ravichandran Ashwin in the battle of the offspinners, claiming match figures of 9/134 – the second best of his career – as well as the man of the match award and an unassailable 3-1 series lead for England.
Not since Bob Dylan ended a three-year performing hiatus by playing the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival has England’s south coast witnessed as resounding a comeback as Moeen’s here in Southampton. With the match intriguingly in the balance, he took 4/71 in the second innings to go with the 5/63 from the first – the wicket of Virat Kohli not just the top prize in that raffle but also the moment on which the day and the result of the match turned.
The battle between the offspinners has been the underlying story of this match, first Moeen resurrected England’s chances after another shaky batting performance, then Ashwin failed to deliver when all expected. However on day four it was an altogether different contest that would decide the match.
Kohli and Moeen could hardly be more opposite foes, one self-confident to the point of being brash, the other uncomfortable being described as his side’s premier spinner. One a born leader, the other the perfect team man. And yet it was their duel that ultimately settled the fate of this Test.
If there had ever been any doubt that for India it was always going to come down to Kohli, that was all but erased when their top three dissolved back into the pavilion with just 22 runs on the board – for England then their mission was clear, remove the skipper and the rest would all surely fall into place.
10 overs into his innings they thought they had their man, Moeen ripping one into his pads. The umpire was unmoved, England reviewed, but DRS was not on their side, third umpire Joel Wilson seeing an inside edge where many others had not – England’s dismay undoubtedly compounded by the revelation that in all other respects Kohli would have been out.
Kohli has for most of this series operated on a higher plane to other batsmen – he has more than twice the amount of runs as the next highest run scorer – and Sunday was no different. While England pressed and pressured he remained in control, remarkably playing just 3% false shots.
Moeen though was at the top of his game too, as if feeding off and learning from everything Ashwin did wrong in England’s second innings, he bowled slower than his more celebrated opposite number and found 40% more turn as a result – again England thought he had Kohli trapped in front, again DRS was not their friend. Struck outside the line, both reviews burned.
It was no surprise that even India’s batsmen, raised on the proverbial diet of spin, were struggling against Moeen, CricViz revealed that no finger spinner has found more spin in a Test innings in England since Shoaib Malik in 2010.
Still though Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane battled on, clawing India back into victory contention – every over survived, every run scored, instilling just a little bit more belief in their vociferous fans.
While captain and vice-captain survived, the tourists’ hopes endured, but like a fruit rollup at the point of unfurling, then came the moment that everything started to unravel for India.
Moeen v Kohli – one way or the other the day and the game was always going to be decided by one of the two – and when India’s captain was put down at short leg by Alastair Cook it looked as if it might just be his day.
Victory though was short-lived, the next ball ripped into him; brushing glove, hitting pad and lobbing up to Cook who made no mistake second time – Moeen and England finally had their man, and with it the expectation of winning came gleefully roaring into full view.
Three of the final six would go to Moeen, he had won the battle of the offspinners and England the war in the process.
For India, this Test was a microcosm of the series as a whole, a case of what could have been, here they had England 86/6 and 125/5 and yet still could not quite press that advantage home – they go to The Oval now with just pride to play for. That era-defining away series win still tantalisingly out of reach.
First Published: September 3, 2018, 9:00 AM IST