ngland lost their top four batsmen in the first session on the opening day of the pink-ball Test at Ahmedabad’s monstrous Motera Stadium as India’s spinners caused all sorts of trouble on a surface turning sharply.
England suffered the hammer blow of losing Zak Crawley five minutes before lunch, having breezed his way to an elegant half-century, brimming with classy boundaries, as he replaced Rory Burns at the top of the order.
After the loss of Joe Root, lbw to Ravichandran Ashwin, then Crawley to a smart bit of bowling from Axar Patel, England were 81 for four at lunch, with with Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope at the crease.
The good news for England is that they won the toss and are batting first on a pitch that will deteriorate. The bad news is that it was not easy even on day one, with balls turning and rearing sharply — hitting Root on the glove — in the first hour.
And, in further bad news, they have picked only one spinner as the teams’ bowling attacks diverged wildly for the first time in the series. India retained the balance of two seamers, to exploit the pink ball, and three spinners, to exploit the dry pitch.
England, by contrast, have gone all in on the pink ball, shifting from three seamers and two spinners to four and one respectively. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are paired together for the first time this winter, with Jofra Archer asked to provide some oomph.
With Moeen Ali at home and Dom Bess out of favour, Jack Leach will plough a lone furrow when it comes to spin bowling. It appears Mark Wood and Chris Woakes were as close to playing as Bess. It was hard to escape the sense that if Moeen was still in India, he would have played.
In doing so, England lengthened their tail, with Archer listed at No8. By bringing in spinner Washington Sundar for Kuldeep Yadav, India strengthened their lower order batting. The two teams really did veer in different directions.
Crawley, after a wrist injury, and Bairstow, having been sent home for rest, had also come into the team as England made a total of four changes for the third match in a row.
The pair promptly found themselves at the crease together when Ishant Sharma celebrated becoming the 10th seamer to play 100 Test by having Dom Sibley caught at second slip in the match’s third over. The dry surface was already showing some variable bounce.
The first ball of spin, at the start of the game’s seventh over, saw Bairstow fall lbw to the excellent left-armer Axar. Bizarrely, Bairstow immediately called for a review, but the ball was cannoning into leg stump. His was the sixth duck recorded by England’s top three in five matches this winter, with two apiece for Burns and Sibley and one for Lawrence.
By then, Crawley had stroked five elegant boundaries in front of square off the seamers. He had 23 and no one else had scored a run off the bat.
The dropping of Burns, 23 Tests into his career, is more significant than Lawrence, who will come again. Having missed the tour of Sri Lanka as he became a father, Burns has struggled in his last two series, against Pakistan and India. He has thrived before in the last-chance saloon, when making a fine Ashes hundred at Edgbaston in 2019 when many would have dropped him, but England opted to take him out of the line of fire here. He will remain in the conversation for the summer’s Tests.
But it was easy to see why England wanted Crawley back in the team, and the removal of Burns means they have just one left-hander for Axar, with rough already building outside off-stump, and especially Ashwin to prey on.
That left-hander, Stokes, was in before lunch when Root made a rare misjudgement of length, going back and being pinned on the pad. His review did not save him either, but it was at least retained as it was umpire’s call.
Stokes followed Crawley in looking to take the positive approach, after Ashwin caused him trouble in the Second Test defeat in Chennai. He drove the great off-spinner down the ground for a handsome four off just his 11th ball as Virat Kohli crowded the bat with close fielders.
At the other end, Crawley looked serene, despite a top score of 13 in four innings on the recent tour of Sri Lanka. He threaded drives down the ground, through cover and midwicket, and reached his half-century from 68 balls with his 10th boundary (all in front of square), a classy cut.
Having spun one past his edge, Axar got one to go straight on, removing England’s one bright spark.