M Vijay’s fourth Test century – his first away from home – held India’s innings together on a first day that was full of momentum shifts on an atypically slow and lifeless Trent Bridge pitch. India suffered jolts at a number of critical junctures; the double-loss of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli immediately after lunch could have proved particularly debilitating. But Vijay batted calmly through the day to end up on unbeaten 122, as India shaded an absorbing start to the Investec Test series.
The rest of the match could hinge on two selection calls, one by each team. India handed Stuart Binny a debut, giving themselves an extra seam option at the expense of a specialist batsman in Rohit Sharma. England brought in Ben Stokes for Chris Jordan in a straight swap. Stokes, who had made a Test hundred in Perth batting at No. 6, was now penciled in at No. 8.
When MS Dhoni – none of whose six Test centuries have come outside the subcontinent – walked in at 178 for 4 after Liam Plunkett’s around-the-wicket ribcage attack had prised out Ajinkya Rahane in the first over after tea, it could have gone either way. But Dhoni was hardly troubled. With little extra bounce or movement that often exposes his lack of footwork, Dhoni moved to 50 by stumps, having scored at a strike rate of nearly 80 without particularly going after the bowling. He also saw off nine overs of the second new ball.
Of the 126 balls Plunkett delivered on Wednesday, 70 were aimed at the right-handers from around the wicket, a majority of them banged in short. The line of attack dismissed Rahane, who toe-ended an attempted pull to silly point, and kept India’s scoring rate down – Plunkett conceded 1.37 runs an over from around the wicket as opposed to 4.28 from over the wicket. It was, however, a largely attritional ploy. Most of the time, the batsmen swayed away from his short balls that often bounced before reaching Matt Prior.
The pitch nullified their quickest bowler, but England still managed to produce a few wicket-taking deliveries. In the seventh over of the morning, James Anderson produced one that straightened from around the wicket to find Shikhar Dhawan’s outside edge. Then, in the second over of the post-lunch session, he took some pace off a full, reverse-swinging ball that Pujara pushed into the right hand of a diving Ian Bell.
That Bell was stationed at silly mid-on, at handshaking distance from the non-striker, spoke of an under-fire captain trying to show he could think out of the box. Alastair Cook’s tactics had some role to play in Rahane’s dismissal as well, although it could be said he persisted too long with Plunkett’s around-the-wicket line, particularly early in Dhoni’s innings, when he is often uncomfortable outside his off stump.
In between all the wickets, it was Vijay’s day. He began with three fours in the first over of the morning, two edged to third man and one clipped off his pads. Four of his first five boundaries, in fact came off his outside edge. Generally, the edges came from an uncertain front-foot stride, but he wasn’t doing too much wrong besides that. He was playing close to his body, with soft hands, and leaving a large percentage of balls. As the morning session wore on, particularly after Anderson and Stuart Broad went out of the attack, his front-foot stride grew increasingly assured, and he was soon playing the effortless drives he is known for, through cover and mid-on.
Vijay took India to 106 for 1 at lunch, in the company of a fluent-looking Pujara, and England were looking increasingly bereft of ideas or even bowling options. They lacked a genuine spinner and Stokes was their fourth rather than fifth bowler. It looked at that point as if Anderson and Broad were in for an exhausting first Test, never a good idea in a five-Test series.
But Anderson dismissed Pujara right after lunch, and Broad produced a nasty delivery that straightened and bounced out of nowhere to dismiss Virat Kohli in the very next over. India had lost their two best batsmen in the space of ten balls. But Vijay and Rahane remained unruffled through a difficult period, against Anderson’s reverse swing and Stokes’ tight line just outside off, scoring only 13 in a 10-over period but knowing that release would come soon. It did.
Vijay moved into the 80s with two fours in the 51st over of the innings, driving Plunkett through cover and then steering him behind point. Cook then brought on his only spinner, the allrounder Moeen Ali, but he was milked for 21 runs in five overs. India finished the session in a secure position, even if they had lost some of the initiative, and built on that in a final session that brought them 82 runs for the loss of one wicket. India aren’t in a dominant position by any means, but they will take 259 for 4 on the first day of the series, particularly considering how the first day of their previous series in England went.