What a week, what a glorious week… Of cricket, of course, as aside from MLS everything else of interest is on summer breaks. Red ball and white ball specialists were mastering their opponents, gladiators of bat and ball were scheming, striking, swinging and sending shock waves through the cricket community.
Kicking off in Sri Lanka, and in not many sports can you say that with bravery, South Africa were trying to see what life is like after AB DeVilliers, possibly the greatest wicketkeeper & batsman ever born, and almost certainly a top 3 all time greatest 50 and 20 over player, has retired. The answer? Pretty much the same. The perennial achievers have built a side around mainstays JP Duminy, new prodigy Quinton de Kock, Faf Plessis captaining the side, and David Miller bringing the strength. After going 2-0 up in the best of 5 series, South Africa was on enemy soil and feeling good about a series win, a huge event in the subcontinent, on pitches that are unfriendly to visiting teams.
Batting first they went big from the start, 42 without loss from 5.5 overs before de Kock, with some uncommon sloppy strokeplay, edged through to the wicket keeper. The Sri Lankans slowed them down lowering South Africas run rate down to a respectable 7 per over at one point, before their stroke playing master Hashim Amla was removed. From there cricket was given an injection of heroine and the Springboks went crazy. Fours and Sixes galore turned their score into a mammoth 363/7 after their 50 over allotment.
Sri Lanka already knew this would be a hard challenge on a not very easy batting pitch, especially after 50 overs of their own bowling had torn it up slightly. With 246 their highest score in the series so far, they started slowly, losing wickets at regular intervals, the South African quicks bowling great lines and lengths, and varying their speed so much that they became very tough to even hit for singles, never mind boundaries. Inevitably, needing over 80 runs still with just their final wicket left, the tail enders gave up the ghost, and it was the Africans who take home the trophy this summer.
Meanwhile in somehow sunny England, temperatures scared off practice sessions with the annual average temperature being smashed in a world record week for the UK. However, when in doubt about the weather, just go to Birmingham. Overcast mornings and slow starts made perfect bowling conditions for swing bowlers, who always succeed in England. You dont need to look any further than Jimmy Anderson, still in the side at age 36. His devotion to England test cricket is not seen at the top level that often, and being able to still deliver quality performances is nothing short of incredulous.
However, in this test of twists, turns, terrors and torments, it wasnt James Andersons name for once being chanted from the Barmy Army. It was Ben Stokes, the former vice captain currently being investigated for an alleged bar fight, where he jumped to the defence of two gay men who were being harassed allegedly, and Sam Curran, the new 20 year old bowler with a huge potential.
England batted first, and set a modest target for their first innings of 287, supported by some fine knocks from the captain Joe Root, and wicket keeper Jonny Bairstow, both used to each others company in the middle by playing for the same county team of Yorkshire. India fell apart in their reply early, losing regular wickets, and only some inept fielding (not a common sight for England at home, where they are catching difficult chances with ease most matches), and lucky batting keeping India in the game. Virat Kohli, the man whose shoulders carry the weight of Indias hopes, dreams, expectations, and worst of all pressure, seemed unfazed. He knocked the ball around and kept strike as much as possible, shielding his fellow batsmen from taking tough deliveries. At times lucky, at times masterful, but always with confidence and charisma, he clawed India to 274, a defecit of just 13 runs, with a magnificent 149 knock. In a ground where India had never won, in their history, a victory quite a few tipped (yours truly not included), was looking possible.
In their 2nd innings England looked terrible. With a slowly worsening pitch, great bowling, and some very questionable batting shots, they were dismissed for just 180, setting India a relatively modest total of 194 to win the game, and take the lead in the 5 test series. At this point India were 1/4 favourites, with their 11 batters still to come and only needing to average a lowly 20 runs each, surely this was probably now? England disagreed, as did Stuart Broad. Kept quiet int he first innings of India, he removed both of the openers with some beautiful shape and length. After Rahul fell to the full of life Ben Stokes, Virat Kohli came to the crease, again, weighed heavily with the hopes of a nation with him.
Partners fell opposite him, and he again stepped up with some careful shots and slow play, inching India towards their 180 target. On the final session, India needed just 83 runs to win with 4 wickets left, and importantly, Kohli still stood tall at the wicket. Enter Ben Stokes, with a swinging ball clattering into Kohli’s pads in front of leg wicket, and the crowd erupts. Kohli was gone for 49, and now just 60 runs away from their target, India were needing a resistance. Could anyone dig deep and fend off the England attack, scoring enough runs to win in any time possible was fine at this point, time was not an issue, only the 7 in the wickets column was their enemy. Joe Root turned to some spin bowling, and Adil Rashid delivered, taking the penultimate wicket leaving India requiring 55 to win with no second chance now, no room for error, and no true batsmen at the crease. England had turned around a looming defeat, and their bowlers and their spirit brought it back to the brink. It was a truly momentous occasion to see. Ben Stokes didnt want to stop bowling, he thundered down to deliver great strike bowling time after time, just waiting for the mistake from an Indian batsman. It came after just a few more deliveries. A thick edge to Alistair Cook in the slips was taken safely, and one of the greatest test matches in recent years was over.
Whats more interesting of this test is the betting odds. No fewer than 11 changes int he favorite happened in this match, and a lot of people feeling England could hold on cleaned up at some great prices on a poor batting pitch. England were as low as 5/1 at times, and bettors getting in them made good profit.
For the 2nd test the show moves to the home of cricket in London, Lords ground. Without Ben Stokes and facing tough spin, England could be taken the distance here. With rain forecast, taking the draw could be a wise move at 5/1. However, batting frailties on both sides worry me for this game. So the sensible bet is India at 3/1 to tie the series at a ground more friendly to their skills.