It’s 11.23am and Virat Kohli is jogging down the Headingley steps. The sky is a watery grey, the air is thick with cheers and boos and India are four for two. In his 15-year career as a batter and captain, Kohli has pretty much seen it all. He has played international cricket in 17 countries, overcome adversity of every sort, faced down every kind of challenge in every format. But he has never won the toss at Headingley before.
Maybe this matters, and maybe it doesn’t. But there’s something about this place that seems to play tricks on the mind. It is a decade since Ricky Ponting won the toss against Pakistan, batted, and got rolled over for 88 in just over a session. Two decades before that, David Gower sent Australia in on a cloudy morning and watched them run up 601. Strange things happen everywhere, but whether it is microclimate or mythology, few grounds in the world can confound a captain’s expectations so comprehensively.
This is the place of Stokes and Botham, Angelo Mathews and Shai Hope, Darren Pattinson’s only Test and Michael Atherton’s last Test wicket. And so as Kohli walks down the steps, having won the toss and decided to bat, Jimmy Anderson awaiting him in the middle with a sour snarl and five balls left in his over, he must know – if he didn’t already – that whatever his plan was here, he’s going to need a new one.
Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful gift. But going into this game, India’s strategy felt instinctively sensible. It was the strategy that brought them to Leeds with a 1-0 lead in the series: a robust four-pronged pace assault, no room for the best finger-spinner in the world in Ravichandran Ashwin, circumspection and crease occupation against the new ball, taking the game long. Even the decision to bat felt justified based on the underfoot conditions: a slow, tacky pitch with not much grass and few demons in the surface. See off the morning session, wait for the sun to come out, cash in.
That was the plan, at any rate. And perhaps it should not surprise us that a team in India’s mould and a captain of Kohli’s character would stick with the plan, even as all the early evidence dictated otherwise. Since 2000, Headingley is the second lowest-scoring English ground (of their regular venues) in terms of runs per wicket. But it’s the joint highest in terms of runs per over. The moral? It may not always be pleasant to bat here. But if you score, you can score quickly.
With the ball hooping around and Anderson in his sniffy pomp, the situation demanded a counterattack. Instead, India’s only partnership of substance, between Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, trundled along for 15 overs without remotely threatening to shift the momentum of the game or cause England problems. Joe Root was able to maintain attacking fields and stick to his original bowling plans, safe in the knowledge India were going nowhere.
Sharma’s three-hour vigil, seeing off 105 balls for 19, ultimately proved meaningless.
By contrast, England were making a virtue of their rigidity. If batting at Headingley demands adaptation and imagination, gears and the ability to shift through them, then bowling at Headingley demands ruthless discipline, immaculate judgment of length and often a little patience.
Craig Overton takes the new ball for Somerset. Here, he had to wait until the 20th over, by which point Anderson, Ollie Robinson, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali had all had a go before him and the ball was beginning to stop swinging. He was in the side as a replacement for Mark Wood, who at his quickest can hit 94mph, and was selected ahead of Saqib Mahmood, who swings the ball both ways with skiddy, electric pace.
Overton doesn’t really do that. In a way, he has a pretty unenviable job. Asked to perform a similar role that Wood does with the old ball, but 10mph slower. (His first delivery was a gentle 76mph loosener.) Asked to nip it off a good length in the same way that Robinson does, but only after everyone else has taken the shine off the ball first. And really, he’s only in the side because England have six fast bowlers injured, and will invariably have to make way for one of them soon.
In the circumstances, Overton could have been forgiven for charging in at full tilt and trying to force matters. Instead, he stuck to the plan: consistent lengths, dot balls, maiden overs, a challenge with every delivery. He stuck to the plan even when nothing much was happening, when even the edges were dropping short of the slips, when Rishabh Pant danced down the pitch to him first ball after lunch and tried to smear him into the next riding. And on a sparkling day for England, it was Overton who was ultimately rewarded with three wickets and his best Test figures.
An army of 80mph English seamers nibbling away under grey skies? Yes, we can probably conclude that all thoughts of the next Ashes tour have safely been stashed away for the time being. In the space of six riotous hours, a series that seemed to be running away from England has juddered violently back towards them. And yet, the ghosts of history should offer a forewarning: at Headingley, no game is ever quite won until it is won.