Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow were daring to dream about a record chase of 378 against India after they set up another grandstand finish in their Test series decider against India.
No England side has ever hunted down more than 359 – Ben Stokes’ Ashes miracle at Headingley three years ago – but the new spirit of adventure which has engulfed the team this summer looks set to raise the bar at Edgbaston.
An intrepid century stand between openers Alex Lees and Zak Crawley carved a huge chunk of the target, before Root (76 not out) and Bairstow (72no) continued their magnificent form to leave the hosts 259 for three at the end of day four.
With 119 needed and belief implausibly high after knocking off 277, 299 and 296 against New Zealand in the last month, England go into the final day as comfortable favourites to take a fresh slice of history and square the ledger at 2-2.
A full house of more than 23,000 will be in attendance to watch the latest unlikely victory charge of the Stokes-Brendon McCullum era after Warwickshire followed the example of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire by offering free entry for the final day.
Root and Bairstow are both in superb touch, with five centuries between them in the past five weeks, but their unbroken stand of 150 required nerves of steel. They had come together with 109 on the board and with India swarming after taking out the top three for two runs either side of tea.
India captain Jasprit Bumrah had ripped out Crawley and Ollie Pope to get his side’s adrenaline pumping, before Lees was run out following a miscommunication with Root.
From there, the Yorkshire duo reshaped the entire tone with a masterful display of shot selection and hard running – first rebuilding, then controlling and finally approaching complete dominance as the bowlers became weary late in the day.
While England’s fearless approach to batting continues to astound, they would have been staring at an even bigger challenge had it not been for an excellent effort with ball in hand. India held all the cards on 125 for three at the start of play, but lost their remaining seven wickets for 120.
Cheteshwar Pujara carved Stuart Broad to slip for 66 and first-innings centurion Rishabh Pant made a mess of reverse sweeping Jack Leach on 57 as both failed to turn good starts into match-winning scores. Stokes also did a fine job of rounding up the lower order with a barrage of short balls, taking the last three to claim four for 33 – his best figures in almost five years.
Every cricketing convention suggested that England’s openers should still have been daunted by the task ahead but instead they dusted themselves down and cut loose.
Lees charged his third delivery of the innings and swatted Mohammed Shami for four through mid-wicket, laying the foundations for what would become England’s fastest ever century stand for the first wicket. With the new ball mostly behaving itself, he and the under-pressure Crawley reached 50 in just nine overs and three figures before the end of the 20th.
There were 15 boundaries along the way, Lees freeing his arms against the seamers and welcoming Ravindra Jadeja’s spin with disdain. Crawley picked up his share with a flurry of four fours in nine deliveries, three stroked through the cover region and one threaded between the men at mid-on and mid-wicket.
India looked to be hanging in for the chance to regroup at tea but Bumrah re-entered the attack at the last moment and struck gold with his fourth ball. Crawley was cleaned up for 46 playing no stroke, understandably failing to account for some drastic seam movement which dragged the ball back in and clattered the top of off stump.
Bumrah was at it again after the 20-minute breather, felling Ollie Pope for a duck with the first ball of the evening session. Pope played at a full, attacking delivery in the channel and nicked off to get the Indian contingent bouncing.
The temperature soared when Lees was run out for a fine 57 in the next over, a dreadful unforced error. Lees had just sprayed an inside edge to short fine leg and was still working out where the ball had gone when Root began thundering through for a risky single. By the time the message got through, Lees was done for. He turned to look disconsolately at his partner as Virat Kohli led wild celebrations.
Root did not have the luxury of punishing himself for the mistake, with 269 still needed and instead set about making amends with a brilliant stand with Bairstow.
Root survived a close lbw on 16 and Bairstow saw a thick edge burst through Hanuma Vihari’s hands at gully on 14, but the pair’s ability to create scoring options soon took hold. Root was imperious behind square, harnessing the pace of the ball to find gaps at fine-leg and deep third, while Bairstow relied more on hand speed and hard blows.
The duo eased the target under 200, passed the halfway mark and stepped on the gas in the final 40 minutes as the energy levels in the field dropped off. Bairstow summed things up when he carted Siraj’s effort ball into the stands for six late on, the latest in a series of hammer blows to the Indian cause.
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