Shardul Thakur has been nicknamed “Beefy” by India coach Ravi Shastri, in a playful nod to former England great Ian Botham, and he showed just why at the Oval.
India were in trouble at 127-7 after barely two sessions of the fourth test against England when Thakur launched a stunning, counterattacking cameo of which Botham would be proud.
The fastest test fifty ever seen at the storied south London venue — off just 31 balls — saw the right-handed tailender bring India back into the match, with his 36-ball 57 the top score in a total of 191 all out.
India’s fightback continued into the start of England’s reply, with both openers falling cheaply to Jasprit Bumrah and Joe Root bowled by Umesh Yadav for 21 just before stumps.
With England closing on 53-3, the match was in the balance in an oscillating five-match series that is locked at 1-1.
“Right now, the game is equally poised,” Thakur said.
That’s mostly down to him.
He had three lusty sixes to go with his seven fours in an innings that briefly rattled an England pace attack that swarmed all over India’s top order, with only Virat Kohli (50) showing any real form.
One six flew over mid-on. Another was swept off his legs. Thakur roared with delight when bringing up his half-century and pointed his bat to the balcony where his India teammates were standing and applauding.
Oh, and which player’s record did he surpass with his super-quick fifty? Botham, of course, from 1986.
“These guys are teasing me with his name,” Thakur said, laughing. “I think it’s good to compare with a great of the game.”
England justified its choice to bowl first under an overcast sky, with all of its seamers in the wickets. Especially Chris Woakes, who marked his first test in more than a year — because of COVID-related reasons, then injury — by taking 4-55.
After reaching 28-0 after seven overs, India lost openers KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma without adding to the total during a string of seven consecutive maidens.
Woakes bagged Rohit in his first over for 11, as Jonny Bairstow — wicketkeeping for the first time since 2019 while Jos Buttler was by the side of his wife, who is due to give birth — took the catch.
Rahul was then out for 17, rapped on his back pad by Ollie Robinson, whose series just gets better and better. He finished with figures of 3-38.
Jimmy Anderson’s second spell earned him the wicket before lunch of Cheteshwar Pujara, who was looking to block but edged behind after scoring 4.
Three more wickets fell between lunch and tea, including that of Kohli, who was given a life on 22 when dropped by Root at slip but departed when he edged behind to Robinson, who removed the India captain for the third time this summer.
The flamboyant Rishabh Pant threw away his wicket for 9, mistiming a slog that went high to Moeen Ali at deep mid-off, and it needed Thakur’s salvo to rescue India from being dismissed very cheaply like it was in the third Test at Headingley. On that occasion, the Indians were rolled over for 78 on the way to defeat.
“When Rishabh got out, it was important for me to play such an innings,” Thakur said. “Today was a day I could connect properly, so I kept going for the runs.”
Thakur’s dismissal — he was trapped lbw by Woakes for his fourth wicket — prompted a late collapse by India, whose final three batters went in the space of four balls.
Still, India was back in the game, even more so when Bumrah removed Rory Burns, who chopped onto his own stumps for 5, and Haseeb Hameed, who edged uppishly behind for a 12-ball duck, in his first two overs.
Root, the world’s top-ranked test batsman on the back of three centuries this series, looked set and put on 46 for the third wicket with Dawid Malan only to be clean-bowled by Yadav.
The English trailed by 138 runs. It might have been their day, but only just.