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Sophia Dunkley looks a star in the making as Heather Knight supports five-day Tests

·9-min read
Sophia Dunkley looks a star in the making as Heather Knight supports five-day Tests - GETTY IMAGES
Sophia Dunkley looks a star in the making as Heather Knight supports five-day Tests - GETTY IMAGES

Home side have changed mindset

Only a few Test matches ago England’s batters were producing 47-ball ducks and chewing up more than 300 balls to make 50. Not any more. England’s sole innings at Bristol cantered along at almost 3.3 runs per over and included three sixes, a record for a women’s Test innings.

Both sides’ openers batted dynamically and with intent, which set the tone. That this Test match was so attractive and free-flowing on so little experience in the longest format bodes well for the future. Practice makes perfect, and all that.

The kids are all right…

England may have played only one debutant to India’s five, but what a debut by Sophia Dunkley. The first black woman to play Test cricket for England, the 22-year-old’s unbeaten 74 soon became the headline. She was able to steady England’s innings while simultaneously continuing the dynamism of England’s openers, ultimately providing a platform for Anya Shrubsole (47 off 33) to launch from.

Another 22-year-old, Sophie Ecclestone has already been fulfilling her potential in the white-ball game. Captain Heather Knight has vast confidence in the left-arm spinner, ranked the world’s best in T20, picking her as the only front-line spin-bowler. Ecclestone delivered too, becoming the first English spinner to take eight wickets in a women’s Test for 42 years.

…and Brunt is as good as ever

The merits of social media in the men’s game may be hotly debated but in the women’s it has been integral to growing the sport. Just as clips of Sarah Taylor’s lightning stumpings did more for women’s cricket in five seconds than many decades could before, footage of Katherine Brunt’s pitch-perfect seaming delivery, which pipped poor Pooja Vastrakar’s off-stump bail, is a big boon to the women’s game. Clips of that one ball alone have been watched by hundreds of thousands already.

And while we did not need the stump mics to tell us just how much playing for England means to the veteran bowler, Brunt’s 32 overs far exceeded any other seamer in the game as she tore in time and again, her heart never far from her sleeve.

Then there was the catch to dismiss Shafali Verma in the second innings. Integral to England’s chances of a win, the (almost) 36-year-old Brunt covered more ground and dived further than most would half her age to pouch herself a stunner. Stop the retirement talk, now.

They probably could have done with another specialist spinner

Turns out that there is such a thing as a spinner bowling too many overs, contrary to the assertions of many a disparaging fast bowler. We all knew that the Test would be on a used pitch, so it was a surprise when Ecclestone was the only front-line spinner in the 11.

On a number of occasions England could have done with a spinning partner to bowl in tandem with Ecclestone, who bowled 64 overs in all. By the end of it she was shattered and left clutching her left shoulder, while the consistency which had proved so effective earlier on had been noticeably blunted.

The discipline of Natalie Sciver’s seamers was able to keep up the pressure on India to a degree, but the jeopardy that two spinning specialists can provide when bowling from both ends is invaluable. In this instance, it was missing.

We have never really properly discussed five-day women’s Tests

As the prospect of a draw was slowly cemented after tea on day four, the prevailing wisdom was that, had this been a five-day Test, we would have been in for a cracker and a likely result. Knight was bullish here too, advocating for five-day Tests having run out of time to force a result.

It is true that the proportion of draws in women’s Tests is far higher than for men but arguing for another day on the back of a what-might-have-been in just one Test is a flawed one. Had the two sides known it was five days from the start, the approach and tempo of the game would have differed to what unfolded at Bristol.

Not to mention that India would have avoided the follow-on, having easily overcome the 200-run deficit in their first innings required for England to do so. Nevertheless, it is a wider talking point on the back of an exciting, teasing Test and should not be discounted for the future.

Rana hits unbeaten 80 to frustrate hosts as India escape with draw

Final Day – India (f/o) 231 & 344/8 v England (396/9d)

Sneh Rana hits unbeaten 80 to frustrate England as India escape with draw - GETTY IMAGES
Sneh Rana hits unbeaten 80 to frustrate England as India escape with draw - GETTY IMAGES

It has been a match framed by moments of brilliance interspersed by those of madness. Of glorious knocks ended in ugly swipes across the line. Of centuries and five-wicket hauls being there for the taking but never quite taken. And for England a match that was there for the winning but never quite won.

That the match ended in 15 minutes of folly, with a result no longer possible but India refusing to shake hands, was, well, it was okay all-in-all. They have been chasing England’s tail throughout the four days. So when, on finally cementing the draw and preventing that win, job done and the drinks on ice, who could deny India a bit of fun in the Bristol gloom, some light trolling of a frustrated England and a moment for the tourists to savour.

Then, when the umpires decided that enough was enough and that bad light had sunk in, that seemed okay too; it has been a fun-filled few days, time to turn the lights out. Still, it left us thinking what might have been.

"Five day Tests could maybe be the way forward,” Heather Knight said at the close of play. “We just ran out of time a little bit. So many games have ended in draws and a little bit of rain and slow play didn't help our cause. "I think if there was another day, what a finish that would have been."

If most of the match had been dominated by individuals taking the headlines, by Shafali Verma, Sophie Ecclestone and Sophia Dunkley, the closing scenes belong to those who motor on in the paragraphs below. For England, it was Natalie Sciver, a disciplined, persistent bowling display on a pitch not conducive to seam. Her first ten over spell produced a wicket for one run: an economy of, yes, 0.1.

In the absence of another frontline spinner to partner Ecclestone’s probing, hunting slow-left armers, all England could rely on was its seamers bowling with unrelenting discipline. If they were to close out the game, England couldn’t afford to let India recompose between Ecclestone’s mammoth haul of 38 overs. Sciver obliged, producing nine maidens in her 16 overs, her two wickets a testament to the bowling of an unrelenting metronome. If Test cricket recorded assists in the scorecard, in the same manner that they do in ice hockey, Nat Sciver takes that accolade.

For India, Sneh Rana, a composed and measured repellant to England's bowlers bearing down, was the standout. It has been a long time coming for the reliable all-rounder, whose half century was marked by a nod to the heavens, in tribute to her recently deceased father.

If Shafali Verma (63 from 82) demonstrated what the new breed of Indian cricketer might be capable of in the near future, Rana demonstrated the power of perseverance and the importance of the domestic structures beneath international cricket. Her Test debut in Bristol ended a five-year absence from international cricket. A four-wicket haul and unbeaten 80 suggests her next cap might not be quite so far away.

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Rana’s entrance to the crease occurred at the peak of England’s confidence that they might, finally, snaffle the win. At 199 for seven, India’s star striker of Harmanpreet Kaur had just been dismissed for the second time in the game for single figures by Sophie Ecclestone, just like her captain Mithali Raj not long before. Quite the bunnies for the young spinner, who had already prized out the two half centurions of the innings so far, in Shafali Verma (63) and Deepti Sharma (54).

The visitors were only 34 ahead and there were plenty of overs to spare. England’s first Test win under Heather Knight was pencilled in. We’d already seen how spectacularly India could, and likely would, collapse, both in this innings (four for 18 either side of lunch) and the last.

But this was forgetting the inventiveness of India’s lower order. They tried everything they could. Aside from the solid defensive strides of Rana and her capable deputy, Taniya Bhatia (44 not out), which may have taught those further up the pecking order a thing or two, there were other tactics India turned to as well.

The obligatory reshuffling of various bits of cricketing equipment aside, there was a moment where India’s 12th woman, Jemimah Rodrigues had made it all the way to the crease, angling her run behind the umpire’s turned back, water bottles in hand, to try and capture a few more minutes without England bowling. But it had been just one over since drinks. The umpire summarily ushered Rodrigues away and she sloped off to the sidelines, India’s support team roundly applauding. India did, truly, try everything; a further attempt elicited an umpire warning that five penalty runs would be gifted England should similar feats be repeated.

It made for compelling viewing. The closer the prospect of a win, the worse the nerves got to England. The flow and rhythm, the determination we had seen in the middle overs was disrupted and India, outplayed through much of the match, leave Bristol the merrier of the two. But this match went beyond just two teams: it marked a sign of things to come, a wave goodbye to a bygone era of turgid run rates, lower order fragility and long-form naivety. It is, hopefully, just the beginning.

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