KL Rahul’s sublime century puts India in early control against England

KL Rahul’s sublime century puts India in early control against England

When England left Trent Bridge on Sunday they could at least draw comfort from the great unknown of a washed-out final day. A heavy dose of reality followed at Lord’s, however, with India dominating the opening exchanges of this second Test thanks to a sublime unbeaten century from KL Rahul.

As the two sides walked off the field at 7.21pm, the tourists had progressed to 276 for three from 90 overs and Rahul was indelibly 127 not out from 248 balls. Ollie Robinson struck late on to remove Virat Kohli for 42, while Jimmy Anderson had shrugged off fitness concerns to deliver two wickets. But this was not Joe Root’s vision when he won the toss under leaden skies and elected to bowl.

Perhaps his side’s recent shortcomings with the bat influenced the call and, in that regard they at least attended another lesson this summer. It began with Rohit Sharma dominating with 83 from 145 balls and the 34-year-old looked a man seeking to address the final gap on an otherwise exemplary all-format CV. Rahul at the other end simply batted beautifully all day, this his fifth century on the road out of six.

India’s depth is remarkable. Rahul didn’t feature in their conquering of Australia this year through injury and is opening here after injuries to Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal. It may be that India have stumbled across the ideal foil for Sharma in the long term, however, the right-hander impressively etching his name on to an honours board that curiously eluded both Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar.

It was no mean feat considering the start to the day, when Kohli lost the toss for the eighth time in eight Tests on English soil. Lord’s has two snazzy new stands but it was hard not to be reminded of the corresponding fixture three years ago, when the tourists were inserted in similarly soupy conditions and crumbled to 107 all out.

Stuart Broad may have been ruled out of the series with a torn calf muscle but Anderson, the architect of that day in 2018, passed a late fitness test amid concerns over a tight thigh. With a dark Dukes ball plucked from the box, and England having asked the groundsman, Karl McDermott, for a tinge of green on the pitch, conditions weren’t dissimilar for a possible repeat.

These are different times and this India side has hit the series with immense purpose, while their hosts appear to be creaking. As well as Mark Wood stepping up for Broad, two further changes – Moeen Ali replacing Dan Lawrence for balance, and Haseeb Hameed returning to put Zak Crawley out of his misery – underlined the whirlpool the England team has been sucked into this summer.

And over the course of three sessions – delayed initially by rain and featuring a lunch that was needlessly extended to an hour due to a mere sprinkle – Kohli’s men flexed this collective muscle. With the first sellout Test crowd at Lord’s since 2019 came the return of the fulsome hum and it broke for appreciative applause in the main.

The foundations were laid by Rahul and Sharma bettering the 97 they stuck on the board at Trent Bridge and crafting the highest opening stand by a side asked to bat first at the home of cricket. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook had held the record, 114 against South Africa in 2008, and these two right-handers went 12 runs beyond.

While both were resolute in defence – stillness personified and so correct by way of technique – this was also a modern retelling of the tortoise and the hare. Rahul was happy to dig in, striking his first boundary off his 108th ball when launching Moeen for six down the ground, while after a watchful start Sharma began punishing anything loose.

The bat was beaten occasionally, and the odd inside edge drew gasps from the spectators, but over the course of their 44-over alliance neither opener offered a genuine chance. Anderson probed, Robinson offered plenty in his first experience of back-to-back Tests, yet the support pairing of Sam Curran and Wood struggled to sustain much pressure despite the latter’s impressive speeds.

Indeed, Sharma took a particular liking to Curran, picking off four boundaries in one over during his first spell before lunch, while he was clearly unfazed by Wood hitting 95.7mph on the speed gun, judging by the first six of the day being pulled over long leg like he was swatting away a pesky fly. Moeen had nothing to work with but was tidy.

Perspiration lacked inspiration on a slow surface until Anderson returned during the second half of the second session and Root got the breakthrough he so desperately craved. Sharma fell 17 runs short of his first century outside India when England’s attack leader finally found a way past his thick bat.

This was vintage Anderson, beating the outside edge with swing before the follow-up, a wobble-seam delivery, nipped back down the slope and clipped off-stump. When the uncertain Cheteshwar Pujara came and went for nine, offering catching practice to Jonny Bairstow at third slip when Anderson found the edge, suddenly Lord’s sat up.

Kohli had arrived at the crease yet to get off the mark in the series after his first-ball duck against Anderson in Nottingham. But though Robinson beat his outside edge a couple of times, Rahul absorbed all the pressure at Anderson’s end, moving to his second half-century of the series and steering India to tea on 152 for two.

After this brief flurry the evening session began with a return to the running theme of the day, albeit with the clouds having made way for sunshine, as Kohli and Rahul took a weary attack that was clinging on to a 39-year-old for 117 runs. Rahul’s century came from 212 balls and, like Devon Conway here in June, was celebrated like a batsman not sated. Kohli, ominously, now has time in the middle.

The one-way traffic was summed up by the fact it felt a footnote when Robinson picked off Kohli with the second new ball, edging to Root at slip. By this stage Rahul was driving the last of his 12 fours handsomely and with Ajinkya Rahane new to the crease, followed by aggressors in Rishabh Pant and Ravi Jadeja, England already need wickets to tumble.