The series scoreline reads 1-1 at the halfway stage but the moods of the two teams will differ greatly. India did a number on England in the second Test, dominating from the outset such that only an incendiary 18-ball 43 from Moeen Ali during the last rites prevented it being their record victory by way of runs.
When Moeen was last man out, stumped by Rishabh Pant to see England 164 all out just after lunch on the fourth day, the margin of victory for India was still an imposing 317. Kuldeep Yadav was the final bowler to strike but it was Axar Patel who shone brightest during the denouement, figures of five for 60 capping an excellent Test debut for the left-arm spinner.
Joe Root’s side now fly on to Ahmedabad with wounds to lick but must not lose heart. Next up is a pink-ball Test so as much as they will want to learn from two gory innings in Chennai – chiefly the 134 all out first time around – conditions are likely to once again lurch in a new direction; any inquest held by Joe Root and Chris Silverwood should not become all-consuming.
Their handsome victory in the first Test came with the knowledge that India would likely come back hard and sure enough it materialised. Virat Kohli rediscovered his snarl, was given the spinning pitch that he asked for and his players outclassed their opponents in every facet of the game (bar, perhaps, an entertaining score draw between the wicketkeepers Pant and Ben Foakes).
It was pretty much one-way traffic once Rohit Sharma had morphed into Virender Sehwag on the first day with a sublime 161, while Ravichandran Ashwin was named player of the match following a stunning all-round performance in his home city that produced figures of eight for 96 across the two innings and a punishing 106 batting at No 8 on the third day.
That knock should have doused much of the swirling talk about the pitch although England still faced a task as futile as Sisyphus and his boulder when they woke up on Tuesday morning. Resuming on 53 for three with a target of 482, the capricious surface meant even showing the “fight” that supporters demand in such situations was going to require a healthy splash of luck.
Once more, however, they collapsed, stumbling into lunch on 117 for seven with Ashwin once again the bowler to trigger England’s descent. Kohli had held him back first thing, opting for Patel and seamer Mohammed Siraj first up, but when introduced in the seventh over of the morning he struck first ball when Dan Lawrence danced down the pitch, was nutmegged by Ashwin and stumped superbly by Pant.
Ashwin has 17 wickets in the series already but of the 10 different batsmen dismissed, Ben Stokes is the greatest cause for concern right now and not least as a keystone at No 5. Few bowlers can claim to have a stranglehold over Stokes but Ashwin had his number in both innings to make it 10 times in 10 Test matches, four more than the next-best Nathan Lyon.
Both are off-spinners who love to probe away at left-handers and here it felt just a matter of time. Ashwin was using both sides of the wicket, mixing up his speeds and angles to toy with Stokes like a cat with a mouse until finally, off the 38th ball of this one-sided duel, England’s vice-captain played for turn that didn’t materialise and popped a catch to slip off the inside edge via a pad.
From there it was over to the two left-armers Patel and Kuldeep to polish off the innings, the former picking up three wickets either side of lunch including Root for 33 to one that spat out of the rough and was gloved to slip. The England captain had enjoyed two strokes of fortune up to this point too, surviving a strong lbw shout the previous evening and a drop by Siraj on 32.
Both Ollie Pope and Foakes fell to sweeps – a shot fraught with danger on the surface – before Olly Stone was pinned lbw, for a duck, to give Patel his fifth. Moeen then briefly crackled, swatting five booming sixes and three fours to finish as both the leading run-scorer and wicket-taker for England in the match, but his demise to Kuldeep meant Kohli – and the returning crowd he had harnessed across the four days – could start celebrating a convincing victory.