ENGLAND V INDIA: SUPPORT ACTS FIND THEIR VOICE

This post was originally posted on All Out Cricket on August 15th, 2014.

The usual suspects set the tone but then it was over to Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes to take centre stage for the first time this summer, writes Jo Harman from The Oval. 

Chris Woakes celebrates the wicket of Ravichandran Ashwin

James Anderson and Stuart Broad are tough acts to follow. Six more wickets and Anderson will surpass Ian Botham as England’s most prolific Test bowler, while Broad sits sixth on the all-time list. Fitness allowing – and a ludicrous schedule which sees England play 17 Tests in nine months from April next year raises serious questions about that – and Broad too will have passed Botham’s mark by the time he takes up residence in the Sky Sports studio or TMS box.

We are privileged to be watching two of the finest seamers England has ever produced, operating in tandem. It’s well worth savouring while we have the chance.

We were treated to another masterclass this morning: Anderson moving the ball both ways at will, and moving it late; Broad bowling a slightly shorter length, hitting the pitch hard and nibbling it off the seam. India’s top-order – brains frazzled and confidence shattered after the demolition job at Old Trafford – simply weren’t equipped to deal with what was coming down at them.

In the same way that England could do nothing but cling on for dear life in the face of Australia’s fast and nasty barrage on rock-hard pitches over the winter, India were left inert and shot-less against the moving ball under cloudy skies here. Gautam Gambhir – who should never have been picked for this series and is unlikely to play Test cricket again – was a lamb to the slaughter. He lasted one ball, which he tried not to hit, did anyway, and got caught by Jos Buttler off Anderson. Rarely has the wicket of a Test opener seemed quite so inevitable.

When Broad burst through Che Pujara’s defences to leave India 10-2 inside six overs, it looked as though we were on for a repeat of the first innings at Old Trafford, where Broad and Anderson shared nine wickets. Murali Vijay and Virat Kohli hung in there though, seeing off the new-ball pair to bring the support acts into play. Typically this summer it’s been at this point that England’s stranglehold has slipped.

Coming into this match, Anderson and Broad had shared 37 wickets at 22.59 in this series while the other four seamers – Jordan, Woakes, Stokes and Plunkett – had taken 18 between them at 47.61. Even at Old Trafford where England were so dominant, 24-4 became 63-4 when Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan were brought into the attack.

The gulf in class between Anderson and Broad and what follows has been evident – that’s nothing new in a bowling attack that has two stand-out performers: Ambrose and Walsh, Donald and Pollock, Waqar and Wasim, etc – but some of the criticism directed at Jordan and Woakes has been particularly scathing, with several pundits writing them off as Test players even at this nascent stage in their international careers. True, Jordan had a nightmare in the first innings at the Ageas Bowl and Woakes has lacked penetration at times but it’s worth recalling Broad and, in particular, Anderson’s first steps in international cricket. It wasn’t always this way.

And so, at 26-2 having fought their way through Anderson and Broad for the loss of no further wickets, India would have sensed the opportunity to rebuild against the undercards. That they weren’t able to can be put down to some poor batting, but also the excellence of Jordan and Woakes who, for the first time in this series, took centre stage.

Jordan took just four balls to see off Kohli, India’s fallen angel shouldering arms and getting trapped lbw, before Ajinkya Rahane chipped one straight back into his enormous paws in his next over. Woakes, who’d been immaculate in his line and length, then found Vijay’s edge and India went to lunch at 43-5: Anderson and Broad with combined figures of 13-3-22-2, Jordan and Woakes with 12-7-16-3. England’s support acts were starting to hit the high notes.

The theme continued after the break, Woakes dismissing Ravichandran Ashwin with the fourth ball of his second spell thanks to a stunning grab from Joe Root, and Jordan taking out Bhuvneshwar Kumar with his first delivery after being brought back into the attack – albeit with a wide long-hop. Woakes soon had his third when Varun Aaron offered up a simple caught-and-bowled chance, India eventually all out for 148 thanks to a stunning knock of 82 from MS Dhoni to save his side from a complete humiliation.

Alastair Cook has been guilty of overusing Anderson and Broad in this series, particularly before he came to trust Moeen Ali with the ball, but it’s not hard to see why. Opposition batsmen have looked so much more comfortable when his trump cards are taking a breather that the temptation is to play them again and again. Of course, that diminishes their impact and, ultimately, their longevity. It’s just not a viable option long-term, particularly with Anderson in his 33rd year.

Jordan and Woakes still have a lot of convincing to do. Jordan’s jerky action suggests that when everything’s not quite right, things could go quite badly wrong – as we saw at the Ageas Bowl. And Woakes still looks like he lacks that bit of zip to trouble top-class batsmen, even when the speed gun reads 85mph. Days like today, though, should encourage Cook to show more faith in them; to throw them the ball when the outlook’s not quite so rosy and shoulder some of the burden. Only then will we know for sure if they’re cut out for Test cricket.

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