England v India: Headingley thriller a reminder once again of why Test cricket matters

“SACK THE ECB & SAVE TEST CRICKET” said the banner flown high above Headingley cricket ground.

Friday, 27th August 2021, 7:22 pm
Updated Friday, 27th August 2021, 7:42 pm
England's Jonny Bairstow (centre) celebrates catching the ball of India's KL Rahul with Craig Overton. Pictures: PA.

One did not realise that Tom Harrison held a pilot’s licence, but the message to the ECB chief executive and his colleagues seemed clear enough: please stop messing around with the game.

Test cricket, the pinnacle of that game, has been disrespected this year to an unprecedented degree, with players missing matches to rest for white-ball fixtures, being rotated in-and-out of the team on a pre-arranged whim, while all the while the English first-class schedule works actively against the supposed main objective, with the likes of The Hundred taking priority.

Although it did not need someone to go to the trouble of flying a plane over the ground to emphasise the point, it at least rammed it home in the grey Yorkshire skies.

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A plane with a banner reading 'Sack The ECB & Save Test Cricket' flies over ground.

Test cricket matters and the love for it remains. It is not all about money, made-up teams and meaningless phrases such as “every ball counts”. Yuck.

The appeal of Test cricket has been emphasised again.

England went into this match not knowing where their next win was coming from, 1-0 down in the series – which would have been 2-0 but for the Nottingham weather – against a side seemingly heading for a series triumph.

Only Test cricket would then see that side bowled out for 78 after choosing to bat, as England came roaring back at this most magical of venues, and only Test cricket would then see an English batting line-up that has struggled so badly reply with a formidable 432.

England's Ollie Robinson, left, celebrates the dismissal of India's Rohit Sharma, right. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Would India roll over meekly again and England prevail with almost all of day three to accomplish the task? Of course not. This is Test cricket, where the endless ebb and flow contrived to ensure that the tourists at least lived to fight another day or, they will hope, two days.

India closed on 215-2 in their second innings, 139 behind, doing their utmost not to save Test cricket, perhaps, but certainly the match.

Their first task yesterday was to finish off England’s innings. The hosts resumed on 423-8, and Craig Overton struck a couple of boundaries in Mohammed Shami’s opening over.

Only one more run followed, a no-ball from Jasprit Bumrah, as first Shami pinned Overton lbw before Bumrah bowled a swinging Ollie Robinson, England losing 9-2 in the first 20 balls.

India started their reply all of 354 runs adrift with the crowd sensing blood. After a little light drizzle rapidly cleared, openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul knuckled down in a way that made India’s first innings seem like something that had occurred in a parallel universe.

The batsmen were challenged by the bowlers and, through luck and judgement, met that challenge resolutely.

The total stood at 34-0 from 18.5 overs with one ball left in the morning session, India’s first target – to reach the break unscathed – almost achieved.

But then Jonny Bairstow did a very Jonny Bairstow thing, injecting a moment of brilliance into proceedings that will live in the memory.

Overton angled a ball into the corridor of uncertainty and Rahul saw his defensive stroke deflect towards the slip cordon.

The chance seemed to be heading towards Joe Root at first, only for Bairstow to thrust out his left hand at second and pluck it from the air just as it flashed past his body at around hip height.

It was the sort of moment that brings a crowd to its feet; it certainly would have made England’s lunch taste a good deal better.

Their tea, however, would have been somewhat less palatable.

Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara batted throughout the afternoon, adding 78 in 27 overs.

Sharma raised his fifty just before the interval, reached from 125 balls with six fours and an uppercut for six off Robinson, but he would have departed for 39 had England been quicker to review.

The DRS timer had just run down when Root finally decided that he wanted to check whether Sharma was indeed lbw to Robinson, having failed to elicit from his team-mates whether the batsman had perhaps got an inside edge, replays confirming that he had not and that the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps.

If only England could have reviewed the review, as it were. No matter.

Eleven balls after tea, Sharma was gone, Robinson this time winning an lbw appeal to end his innings for 59 and the second-wicket stand at 82. Pujara reached his fifty from 91 balls with nine fours, his first half-century for 13 Test innings and his fastest outside Asia, and he then set about constructing another fine stand with his captain, Virat Kohli.

It had realised 99 inside 33 overs when bad light ended play with four overs left, with conditions too dark for England to take the second new ball.

Pujara will resume on 91, Kohli on 45, with plenty set to hinge on the “big first hour”.