Top predators have three attributes; the ability to over-power their prey, the instinct to sense weakness and a clarity of purpose.
England arrived at Lord’s yesterday for the fifth day of the Second Test, their confusion palpable, their instincts dulled by defeat, their power in doubt.
The task ought to have been straightforward. The remaining seven batsmen had to make 214 runs in a minimum of 90 overs. In modern cricket, with boundaries in from the fence and more efficient bats, this was not as daunting as might once have been.
And so it seemed for the first hour and fifty nine minutes. England’s overnight batsmen, Root (52) and Ali (39) had taken the score to 173/4 almost exactly a third of their task negotiated in just under a third of the time available. The first three days’ travail by swing were a distant memory and the spinner, Jadeja, had not taken a wicket for over 150 balls.
But, with three overs to go before lunch, and half a dozen before a new ball would be due, the top-of-the-food-chain-predator that is MS Dhoni called on Ishant Nemisis Sharma to come into the attack.
Stiff and gangling, Shama eased his way back into the hunt with a couple of fullish balls that Root drove with ease to the boundary. His next, short and languid, was slashed square on the off-side for another four. A couple of singles, including one from around the wicket to Ali, completed the over. England had moved on that morning from 105/4 – the antelopes grazed peacefully on the savannah.
Ali picked up a couple in Jedaja’s next over.
“Ishant my friend of fifty Tests,” whispered his captain into his ear, “give me the strength of your mountainous height, run like the wind across the plains, hurl this orb that I hold in my gloved hand like a knife at the throats of our prey.”
It was the over before lunch. Sharma obeyed his commander, each of them clear in his thoughts, each aware of the weeping wounds still scaring the England batsmen from their recent encounters with Mitchell Johnson. Tell-tale droplets of blood stained John Lord’s two hundred year old turf and could be scented downwind where Sharma began his approach.
The first ball rose fiercely at Root’s head. The prey ducked. The second, delivered with a snort audible in the highest tier of the Grandstand, was directed at the jugular, but Root fended it off. Sharma turned for a third sally. The projectile pounded into the batsman’s chest and ricocheted into the gully, allowing the batsman to escape to the sanctuary of the non-strikers end.
Sharma now eyed Ali and accelerated towards him, but the hostile projectile veered to leg. Again Sharma turned to run in to his prey. Again he bowled wildly. Again the ball passed ineffectively to leg.
Now it was the last ball before lunch, the last chance before Ali could scamper to the respite of the dressing room.
The final ball rose towards the batsman’s throat, he flinched visibly, sank at the knees, raised his hands in self-defence, but in so doing sealed his fate, the ball rebounded gently into the air to be pouched by short leg.
A stronger scent of blood now rose in the air and clung there in the still air as spectators grazed on their lettuce sandwiches.
There are pastoralists and there are warriors.