Behind him lie just over three days of one of the most enthralling Tests in recent memory, a potent cocktail of drama and tension with the potential to leave even the most casual fan dangerously hooked on the sport for life.
To his left is Sam Curran, man of the match in just the second Test of his career, barely two months out of his teens – as film scripts go it would stretch plausibility, but then Test cricket has always had better writers than that.
This was a Roman banquet of a match, with ever-increasingly delicious courses, and a conclusion so mouth-watering it somehow made you wish you could go right back to the start and have it all again.
The beauty of Test cricket is that it’s often hard to tell who’s winning, but that was rarely the case in this game, one side often found themselves on top – what made this match special was that it never seemed to last that long.
Midway through the afternoon on the first day England were cruising at 216/3, and with their two most recently consistent batsmen at the crease it was going to be a long day for India. Then a moment that changed the course of the game – one of so many by the time it finished that it was almost hard to keep track.
Virat Kohli chased down a ball at midwicket, collected it and in one movement threw down the stumps at the bowlers end, Joe Root diving despairingly was short of his ground and run out for 80.
Jonny Bairstow, who had called him through for the suicidal second run, crouched down in anguish by his stumps, the importance of the moment not lost on him.
Suddenly he soon found himself back in the pavilion as well, England lost three wickets for eight runs in 25 balls – and by the close they were 285/9 – the familiar story of batting collapse, advantage squandered.
This match though was just getting started.
Like the trench warfare of World War One any advance from one side was soon undone by one from the other. England fired back with barrages from Curran and Stokes.
Suddenly it was India’s turn to collapse, first they lost three wickets for nine runs in the space of just 14 balls, then two wickets in 11 balls without even adding to the score.
At 100/5 England had India between their teeth, but like a dog that actually catches the squirrel it had been chasing and immediately realises it doesn’t know what to do with it, they let them slip.
Twice England dropped Kohli, and India lived to fight another day – suddenly their captain had magicked his way to 149, expertly marshalling the tail to take his side just 13 runs behind – the match had had enough drama to fill a series and it was only two days old.
If India’s first two days had been dominated by just one performer, they soon found a supporting cast, just over 45 minutes into day three and Ravichandran Ashwin had England running for the hills.
Root tamely prodded a sharply spinning ball into the hands leg slip, save from a few cheers from a pocket of Indian supporters in one of the stands, the life was instantly sucked out of the ground. Root head down, gloved hand over the grill of the helmet covering his face, disbelievingly stood there for an age before eventually dragging himself off – for England the worst was yet to come.
Ishant Sharma, some-time figure of fun, here turned destroyer of worlds. Malan, Bairstow, Stokes and Buttler all sent packing – England 87/7 and India rated by CricViz as 97% likely to win. That was surely that.
But this was England’s 1000th Test and the cricketing gods had something special lined up, a lurid session of play seemingly lifted straight from the fantasies of an overly optimistic child and made reality by Curran.
Ashwin had been torturer-in-chief of England’s left-handers, with two strokes Curran swatted him out of the attack. A glorious lofted four down the ground would have been the shot of the day had it not been proceeded by an almost identical shot for an even more magnificent six the ball before.
By the time he finished he had added an even better shot to the collection, Sharma nonchalantly thumped over extra cover for six runs that brought up a maiden half century. India would need 194 to win – England saved by a man who was a four-year-old when James Anderson made his debut.
How many twists had this game had by now? And yet still more were to come, the match practically daring you to look away, safe in the knowledge that by now you almost certainly couldn’t.
Always deadly on home turf, England’s bowlers sensed blood and were hunting as a pack, Kohli soon once more the only obstacle in their path – but what an obstacle he was.
This was not the red-padded IPL swashbuckler or the ODI chase-master, but the altogether grittier version of Kohli that the situation required. 46 times in the Test he played and missed or edged the ball – the most in any match across his entire career – but he battled on to a second innings 50 and with just 53 runs to win the increasingly vocal swathes of Indian fans in the crowd were starting to believe.
Kohli’s destiny though was to be that of the tragic hero, he had almost single-handedly, it seemed at times, wrestled India to the point of victory – he scored 200 runs in the match, the rest of India’s batsmen only managed 214 – but this match had one final twist.
When Stokes started his opening over of Day 4 CricViz put England’s chances of winning at 32%, by the time he had finished they were at 91%.
First Kohli was trapped LBW – India were cut off at the knees, Stokes fell to his on the grass in roaring celebration – three balls later Mohammed Shami edged behind and England were nearly home.
At 12:30pm came the final blow, a fourth for Stokes, Pandya’s brave resistance wiped out. After all the drama the end was almost something of an anticlimax. How now to fill the time until the end of the day? Let alone until the next Test at Lord’s.
For all the excitement though, this is just the beginning, four more Tests in the series await and if they are anything like this one then we are in for quite a summer.
If Test cricket is dead, then long live Test cricket.
First Published: August 5, 2018, 8:30 AM IST