Jos Buttler’s battling half-century came to England’s aid on a gripping third day of the fourth Specsavers Test against India in Southampton.
A fascinating match nonetheless remains anyone’s after England eked out 260 for eight, to lead by 233 on a pitch playing a few tricks already – with reverse-swing in the equation too thanks to a worn late-season square.
India are facing by far their highest chase to win a Test match in England, and it will not come easily as they seek to keep the series alive by levelling at 2-2.
Number seven Buttler (69) ensured the testing target after joining forces to add 56 with Ben Stokes and then 55 with Sam Curran.
England’s openers appeared set to at least wipe out their 27-run deficit until Alastair Cook was suckered into a drive by Jasprit Bumrah and eventually caught by juggling second slip KL Rahul at his third attempt.
Moeen Ali’s curious promotion to number three ahead of Joe Root did not work out as he too fell cheaply into Rahul’s hands, low this time as Ishant Sharma created his usual confusion for left-handers from round the wicket.
A second and final official warning for running on the pitch soon followed for the tall seamer, though, and Virat Kohli took him out of the attack.
It was therefore Mohammed Shami (three for 53) who stood up either side of lunch and set England back just when it seemed Keaton Jennings and Root might be reclaiming the initiative with a stand of 59.
Shami had Jennings lbw from round the wicket – with one that kept a shade low and, according to DRS, would have hit leg-stump flush.
It also became the last ball before lunch, and when Jonny Bairstow strode out to face the first of the afternoon he paid for an instant moment of misjudgment and apparent over-confidence.
Shami already had the old ball tailing into the shine by now, and Bairstow evidently did not bargain for the lateral movement as he pushed out in front loosely on the up and was bowled between bat and body for a golden duck.
It was his second first-ball dismissal in his last three innings, both bowled, and not a turn of events England could afford.
The same could be said soon afterwards when Root, two short of what would have been a deserved and skilful 50, responded uncertainly to Stokes’ call for a needlessly sharp single and – without a dive which might have saved him – was sent on his way by Shami’s direct hit to the striker’s end from mid-on.
Buttler was joined by England’s first-innings saviour Curran, though, and duly bagged his 96-ball 50 with a cover-driven four off an Aswhin full-toss.
He was following up last week’s maiden Test century at Trent Bridge, at a venue where he had made 85 against these same opponents on debut four years ago.
But as in Nottingham, it was the second new ball which proved his downfall – lbw again too, and the 10th to go that way in this match when the returning Ishant got one to nip in sufficiently to hit him just in line and marginally satisfy DRS on height too.