Without Virat Kohli, can India avoid Black Tuesday?
For most of Monday, Virat Kohli and his men were clapping. To acknowledge Alastair Cook's second fifty of the match. To acknowledge Cook becoming Test cricket's fifth-highest runmaker. To acknowledge Cook's first century of the series, in his farewell Test. To acknowledge Joe Root's first Test century of the series, his first since August 2017.
For most of Monday Virat Kohli's men chased the leather. To retrieve the cuts, drives and flicks by Cook. To retrieve the dabs, square drives, cover drives, punches and lofted strokes by Root.
For most of Monday Virat Kohli's bowlers forgot discipline. They looked exhausted. They looked bereft of ideas to counter Cook and Root. It did not help that they failed to take the chances that came: Root was dropped twice, on 46 and 94.
"Bloody Monday" Kohli and his men might have said at the end.
It was always going to be a difficult day. Cook wanted his milestone and was firm. Root was egging his most senior batsman on while keeping himself keen and hungry for runs. The English fans, including some kids who had bunked the first day of the week, brought theatre and pressure on India.
The day became even more difficult for India before it had barely started: Ishant Sharma, having delivered just one over, retreated to the dressing room with a sore left ankle. Ishant was not seen for the rest of the day. India were a 10-man team. And they still had the entire day ahead of them.
The big challenge for the bowlers was a slow, flat pitch. Jasprit Bumrah decided he was going to bang it in first thing in the morning. He ran in and fired short-pitched stuff especially at Root. He would end up bowling 11 bouncers in his first spell in the first hour. Only once did Root become uncertain and the edge flew towards the unmanned gully region. Otherwise Root looked past Bumrah's cold stares.
The luckless Mohammed Shami, too, proved to be ineffective as Root was playing in both on the front foot and back foot because the pitch had slowed down considerably. With Ishant unavailable, the workload affecting Bumrah and Shami eventually told.
It was also a bad Monday for Ravindra Jadeja, the hero for India on the previous day with the bat. But with the ball, Jadeja was harmless. Before lunch he bowled to a 6-3 field, allowing Root and Cook to take advantage of the open space on the off or leg side. Jadeja could not grip or turn from the surface and also bowled short and fast.
And when he and Hanuma Vihari started to find some turn and apply pressure in a short stretch in the second hour of the morning when only 12 runs came off five overs, Kohli brought Bumrah back, thus releasing the pressure especially on Cook, who was in the 80s. Kohli also failed to place a backward short leg for Cook during this phase when the inside edge flew in that area twice.
As the afternoon stretched on, the footmarks started to come into play. The ball was kicking dust and jumping abruptly from the rough. Vihari found himself on a hat-trick, having claimed the prize pair of Root and Cook. But, curiously, Kohli took the new ball the next over and Vihari must have been puzzled again.
But the bigger problem for India was Moeen Ali was waiting in anticipation of bowling on the final day on a pitch taking wear and tear. James Anderson and Stuart Broad have already crippled their spirits by brushing aside the top order including Kohli.
How will India counter that? With Kohli silenced, any desire of going for the improbable win has also been erased. Can KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane show the guts, patience, boldness to stay resolute against everything England throw at them, including the barbs? Without Kohli, who can usher India to safety?
England and the England fans will be baying for heads. Despite not earning the Kohli scalp, Anderson will be desperate to become Test cricket's highest wicket-taking pace bowler. Broad will be looking to break Kapil Dev's record. Root, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes will not let them breathe easy. Can Rahul and Rahane and the rest of the lower order keep their heads and play time?
India arrived in England as the No. 1 Test team and they will leave as No. 1 Test team. But if they lose this Test, the crown will look misplaced. Despite not being on the field, Kohli needs his batsmen to come good in the final innings of this long summer. Discipline, technique, patience, ruthlessness, mindfulness - his batsmen have been found wanting in one, two, or a combination of those facets that are required to build an innings, build a partnership, build pressure.
If the India batsmen need any inspiration, they have one in Cook. He had looked at sea in every innings of this series until he arrived at The Oval. He said he had nothing left in the tank on the eve of his final Test. Yet he willed himself on: to score a 50 in the first innings and then a century in his final Test innings. Every India player walked up and shook Cook's hands as he bid farewell as a Test batsman. They now need to produce a Cook-ie.
A bloody, hard Monday it was for them, but can India avoid a Black Tuesday?