Even as England stumble-tripped through the desert sands of the Chennai pitch, it was, for two men, the best of times.
The first, Rishabh Pant, is the bubbling superstar of Indian cricket. Baby faced, fearless; a pint-sized serving of warm devil‑may-care with a cocktail cherry of brash.
Many, many words have been said and written in India about his batting, even more about his wicketkeeping, with a role call of experts, including Sunil Gavaskar, calling for him to be relieved of the gloves. “A specialist middle‑order batsman at No 5,” Gavaskar dreamed, during the series against Australia. But India’s selectors, as England’s, are greedy. They want Pant to fill two spaces on the team sheet, good enough behind the stumps, much more than that with a bat. Not to mention a more than useful irritant to wind up unsuspecting opposition batsmen.
So England were wary on Sunday morning. Pant has a Test average of 44 but a more potent ability to embark on a course of utter devastation. And if his shots are rash, hey, he just doesn’t care. As it was, he didn’t have much support, as India were bustled into the wings within seven overs thanks to two double-wicket overs; one from Olly Stone, one from Moeen Ali. There was time for a cameo, though; with Pant, there’s always time for a cameo.
He slammed Joe Root into the stands for six, after the captain removed Jack Leach from the firing line in an attempt to tempt Pant with his own selection of chocolate centres. Two fours came off Moeen’s next over: one exploding through his hands; another, a full toss, frying-panned into boundary boards with a shimmy and wink, before a pushed single brought up the fifty. Just time for six more as his eyes lit up at the sight of Moeen drifting a little wide. The sparse but noisy crowd love Pant like a commentator loves a metaphor, and squealed and hollered him all the way to his 58, off just 77 balls.
He then donned his fluorescent sunglasses and jogged behind the stumps where he had a front-row seat in the stalls for England’s lowest first-innings score in India, contributing two superb catches, throwing himself low to his left. The first to dismiss Ollie Pope, off Mohammed Siraj’s first ball in India, was a scoop that just caught in the webbing between thumb and finger. The second, plucked like a picnicker pulling a plum from a low-hanging branch, dismissed the stubborn Leach just after England had passed the follow-on target.
England’s scene-stealer was their invisible man, Ben Foakes. Padding silently through the shadows of English cricket after being dropped following five immaculate Tests behind the stumps and a couple of stumbles with the bat on a tour of the West Indies, Foakes has long been lauded by those who know. Jack Russell has called him “the most naturally gifted wicketkeeper in the world when standing up”. But Jonny Bairstow he wasn’t, and Jos Buttler he wasn’t, and England decided to go elsewhere. Somewhere bolder and brasher, looking for an Alec Stewart, but perhaps forgetting the Alec Stewart under their nose.
Understandably, Foakes’s form with the bat suffered a little for Surrey, but his keeping remained quietly, unobtrusively excellent. When the call came for this tour, he was ready, if emotionally somewhat battered.
At 27, Foakes has four years on Pant. Devilishly handsome with his sculptured stubble and white lipsticked sun block, worn for all the world like the frosted pink highly favoured by teenage girls in the 1980s, he had a fabulous time behind the stumps on the first day of the Test, unlucky not to have won a stumping. A smart stumping followed this morning to dismiss Axar Patel off Moeen.
It wasn’t long, though, before he was walking in for his first innings in his first Test for just under two years, with the score an unwelcoming 52 for five. Yet in partnership with Pope, he calmed Virat Kohli’s crowd-orchestrated enthusiasm. On he went, ticking the score over, all soft hands and angled bat, keeping the ball low, guiding not walloping, and stranded short of his fifty after Stuart Broad decided that a slog-sweep against Ravichandran Ashwin was worthy of the gamble and dragged on to his stumps.
Foakes had scored almost a third of England’s runs coming in at seven. “It was extremely difficult,” he later said. “I was just trying to play within my limits, because the ball was taking the top of the surface and spitting quite a lot.”
If his high standards slipped a slither in the second innings, you had sympathy. England had time to bowl another 18 overs, and tiredness was falling. Four byes slid past his weary gloves, uncharacteristically, and then a stumping opportunity too, as Rohit Sharma galloped down to the wicket to Moeen.
On a day when 15 wickets fell, none of them were wicketkeepers. The wicketkeepers union can settle knowingly into their armchairs.