AB de Villiers. Hashim Amla.Kane Williamson. Mighty fine batsmen who have been cut to size by a combination of India spinners and pitches since the start of the last season in India. In his first innings in India since this pitch revolution, the resurgence of R Ashwin and the emergence of Ravindra Jadeja, Joe Root scored the first century by a batsman visiting India since Michael Clarke in February 2013. Moeen Ali ended the day one short of another.
The two added 179 - the longest and highest partnership by a visiting team since the start of the 2015-16 season - to restore England from a tricky 102 for 3 as they became the first visiting time to score 300 in the last 20 innings in India.
England will hope Root has set the tone for yet another series. Since his recall in 2014, he has scored 200 not out, 154 not out, 83, 98, 134, 85, 24, 0, 48, 40, and now 124 in his first innings of the series. Moeen brought a touch of maturity to go with his usual grace. The duo hardly put a foot wrong after lunch, but the role of the toss cannot be overstated. This was the first time in Virat Kohli's captaincy that India had lost a toss at home where the changing pitches have made the toss crucial. If watching at home, Williamson must be wondering why he didn't have this luck. His England counterpart, Alastair Cook, went on to enjoy more luck before two overs were bowled than Williamson had in the whole series.
Ajinkya Rahane and Kohli dropped Cook once each off the opening bowlers. Expecting low bounce the cordon had crept closer at the start of the match. The first one perhaps went too fast to Rahane at gully, the second reached Kohli on the full only because he was well in but it didn't stick. To make it worse for India, M Vijay dropped a sitter at first slip, reprieving the 19-year-old debutant Haseeb Hameed, who otherwise looked like a solid old-fashioned opener who didn't mind the new fashion of cutting in the air when the ball was short.
Having missed three catches by the time England's openers had reached 24, India had lost a chance to cancel out some of the toss disadvantage, but Cook and Hameed didn't go on to hurt India too much. To the first ball after drinks, Cook fell to Jadeja. Hameed fell to Ashwin after a 29-run stand with Root. Both had used the ploy to get outside the line of off to face balls breaking back in. Cook fell to one that turned past the inside edge, and Hameed to a change of angle. From round the wicket, Ashwin trapped him with an offbreak that didn't turn as much as expected. Ben Duckett chanced his arm, hit three boundaries and fell to what turned out to be the last ball before lunch.
The non-striker's role in both of the first two dismissals left a lot to be desired. Hameed discouraged Cook from reviewing when the ball was headed down leg, and Root made Hameed review a dead plumb lbw. That was perhaps the only absolute error Root made before he finally fell in dramatic circumstances in the final session. He was in silken touch, batting on a first-day pitch and without scoreboard pressure. In two balls, in the 23rd over, he displayed his mastery with two drives. Ashwin, who was not shy of asking the batsmen to drive, pitched the first ball up but not right up. At the last moment in that drive, Root used his wrists a little to open the face and beat cover slightly to his left. The next ball was a touch fuller, and he unfurled an orthodox cover drive to beat the same man to his right.
That Root was even being asked to beat the man at cover was a sign of the challenge India were facing. During the series against New Zealand, Ashwin hardly availed the services of a cover fielder. He often had just three men on the off side, sometimes even two. Now he needed a fourth man. The pitch was not turning as much as it had for him against New Zealand, and because there were no runs on the board he couldn't afford to be driven too often.
Ashwin bowled 18 overs on the trot either side of lunch, but couldn't draw half a false stroke from Root after his two early wickets. Early after lunch the ball kept low twice, but he found Root watching it like a hawk. Moeen played one false stroke, on nought, jabbing at one after stepping out. This one fell short of short leg.
At the other end India tried the pace of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, looking to break through with reverse swing available, which should encourage England. Root and Moeen were equal to it, not committing to shots early, and waiting for balls that were overpitched. Root drove Yadav beautifully to celebrate reaching his fifty. Amit Mishra, the extra bowler India played, kept offering the odd full toss without making an impression with his legbreaks.
Against New Zealand and South Africa, India could afford to bowl with in-and-out fields because hitting the ball to even mid-on could be risky at times, but now with spread-out fields the two could pick the ones and twos easily. With Ashwin having to bowl so much, England could now pick on three men in the field: Gautam Gambhir, Mishra and Ashwin. To make it worse for India, Shami struggled with what at first looked like a hamstring issue but may have been cramps because he kept coming back.
Whenever India looked to plug the singles, Moeen would dance down and loft the spinners over the infield, even Ashwin and against the turn. Root did it once too, hitting Jadeja over long-off for a six. That was almost a celebration of his hundred, but just before that he had a close call. With Root on 92, Yadav reversed one into his pad, catching him in front of middle, but the reviews returned the slightest of umpire's calls to keep it with the on-field call of not-out. When Root reached hundred, off the 154th ball he faced, England were 222 for 3. Moeen had himself reached 54 by then.
England were now in the mod to dominate a tiring attack. Fifty-eight runs came in the next 12 overs. The new ball was available now, but India chose to continue with the old reversing ball. A contentious dismissal followed: a return catch in which Yadav seemed to have lost control while throwing the ball up in celebration. Real-time replays suggested he hadn't controlled, but the slow-motion stayed with the soft signal of out.
In the 12.1 overs that led into stumps, Moeen and Ben Stokes, who had scored three ducks in three innings against India before this, put their heads down and made sure they didn't give India any opening on a day they had dominated.