One of international cricket’s statistical curios was ended in spectacular fashion on Saturday afternoon when Rohit Sharma danced down the track like a Bollywood star and launched Moeen Ali’s flighted delivery into the balcony of the Oval pavilion.
This mighty six saw Sharma register his eighth Test century but, more notably, his first outside of India. An opener who has dominated the international white-ball formats for the best part of 14 years, but found the red ball more challenging when playing overseas, had filled one of the remaining gaps in an otherwise stellar CV.
Sharma’s majestic 127 from 256 balls was the centrepiece of a third day dominated by India and one half of a 153-run second-wicket stand alongside Cheteshwar Pujara (61 from 127). It could well prove the telling partnership of both a series currently locked at 1-1 and a fourth Test that had spent two days in the balance.
By the time bad light brought an early close at 6pm, drawing boos from the spectators as they began to filter out, India had turned their overnight score of 43 for no loss, and a deficit of 56, into 270 for three and a lead of 171. England, so buoyant after rolling the tourists for 191 on day one, already know their chase will be a tough one.
The pitch in SE11 had flattened out and, despite overcast conditions throughout, the ball only fleetingly swung. There was no lack of perspiration but inspiration was in short supply until the box of new Dukes balls came out after tea with India 236 for one and, like Andy Dufresne’s bible in The Shawshank Redemption, salvation lay within.
Ollie Robinson struck immediately, Sharma taking on a pull shot and top-edging to long leg, much to his personal disgust, and Pujara bookended this much-desired 81st over when an inside edge cannoned off his thigh and into the hands of Moeen at slip.
Suddenly the previously dormant crowd was alive and Virat Kohli, having been joined by India’s new No 5 in Ravindra Jadeja, saw four hours of pad-rash replaced by an intense passage of play. Jimmy Anderson found fresh energy in those 39-year-old legs and got this second new ball to whistle past the outside edge a couple of times.
But Kohli was equal to the challenge of his old rival, slotting a quartet of handsome fours before the light was deemed unplayable at 5.42pm. India’s captain, having impressed during his first-innings 50, will resume on 22 in the morning. It has been nearly two years since his last international century and he looks determined to end that run.
Kudos must go to Sharma, however, a batsman who has hit this tour with a point to prove. This may have been his first Test century away from home but, in a statistic that underlines his prowess, also his ninth across all formats in England. Only Don Bradman, with 11, has more as a visiting international batsman to these shores.
Every run from the 34-year-old’s railway sleeper of a bat will have gnawed away at Rory Burns, having missed chances to remove the opener on six and 31. Burns was unsighted at second slip late on day two and, in the morning, another failed to stick when Robinson found the edge and he dived low to his right.
Neither was straightforward – the second would have been sensational – and Sky’s analysts soon highlighted the viewing issues at the Oval which make it the ground with the lowest percentage of successful slip catches (63%) in the country over the past decade. Still, these took England’s tally of squandered opportunities in the match to six, a continuation of a recent trend that sees them regularly forced to create well in excess of 10 wicket-taking chances to bowl their opposition out.
But then over the course of the first two sessions, as India’s chugged to 199 for one by tea and a lead of exactly 100, Joe Root’s attack looked one-dimensional and a touch leggy in places too. Were it not for injuries, Anderson would likely have been rested by now while Robinson, new to Test cricket this summer, is experiencing new levels of exertion. It may be hindsight, but Mark Wood’s extra pace would have been handy.
Chris Woakes is at the other end of the spectrum, fresh though undercooked, and he delivered a sublime spell first up when India resumed. But a warning from Ollie Pope the previous evening that toil may follow proved shrewd during the early exchanges and it needed Anderson’s second burst before lunch to produce the initial incision.
KL Rahul was caught behind on 46 after edging a wobble-seam delivery – not that the right-hander agreed when Root’s review showed the contact on Snicko – but he and Sharma have now both passed 300 runs this series in what is a first by two Indian openers against England.
Sharma had been sedate up to this point, reaching his half-century from 145 balls to make it his slowest in Test cricket. But with Pujara allowed to get up and running by width from the generally disappointing Craig Overton after lunch – and rolling this confidence into an impish uppercut four off Woakes, the scoreboard was still moving.
There was one scare for India when Pujara twisted his ankle turning for a run, the replays of which drew gasps from the crowd. But after treatment and a good deal of strapping the 33-year-old soldiered on and his footwork, so frenetic earlier in the series before his 91 at Headingley, was unimpeded en route to a 103-ball half-century.
The afternoon was chiefly about Sharma, however, the right-hander needing just 59 balls to convert his half-century into three-figures. It was a cruise, Sharma sweeping Moeen handsomely, passing his previous overseas best of 83 and whipping Anderson for four through square with a dash of Caribbean flair to reach 94.
Then came the telling shot, Moeen dispatched over his head and Sharma raising his bat to all corners of the ground. It may have been a day that eventually petered out but this was the highlight of an innings that could well dictate the course of this Test match and series. That said, Kohli looks eager to stamp his mark too.