James Anderson strolled across the Ageas Bowl in his track pants, t-shirt and flip-flops. The man is seven wickets short of breaking the record for most Test wickets by a fast bowler. And he couldn't have looked more at ease. Glenn McGrath, the Australian legend who currently holds the top spot with 563 wickets, thinks no one will go past Anderson once he goes past him. Another famous prediction in a career full of them.
As Anderson walked by, Ishant Sharma, India's most senior fast bowler, ran in to deliver a short of length delivery to Karun Nair. Neither man noticed the other. Suffice to say India's fast bowlers respect Anderson, as do their batsmen. But, during the course of the first three Tests, England, Anderson included, have come to respect India's pace battery too. A pace battery which has taken 38 out of the 46 wickets claimed. Ishant, Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah have five-fors each - that's three times the amount England have.
So as much as the buzz would be about Anderson's record and his compelling duel with Indian captain Virat Kohli, England would be wary about Ishant and Co., who will be looking to level the series 2-2.
After winning at Trent Bridge, Indian head coach Ravi Shastri called the pace bowling unit the best he has seen during his tenure, which began in 2014 when he was appointed team director. Although Shastri can indulge in rhetoric, this time he was not exaggerating. They unsettled South Africa's batmen in the three-Test series in January and have adapted quickly to both the English pitches and the Dukes ball.
When asked to sum up Anderson's greatness, Mohammed Shami said these words: discipline, control and accuracy. Three attributes that never seemed to combine well when it came to India's own fast bowlers. But, in this series, they have repeatedly hit the right lines and lengths, adjusted them according to the nature of the pitch and the weaknesses of the batsman, created pressure by delivering from different angles and have been both aggressive and consistent.
If Anderson and Broad are the pinnacle of fast-bowling partnerships, the Indians are following their example quite well. The biggest change is the swiftness with which they are taking wickets. Ishant, Bumrah and Pandya have struck in rapid succession, allowing no respite for Joe Root and his batsmen. Ishant picked up three wickets in an over in the first Test, while Bumrah and Pandya have been on the verge of hat-tricks.
Another impressive quality that the Indian fast men have displayed is peak fitness. Ishant, Shami and Pandya have played all the three Tests, yet the intensity levels have stayed high. Credit must go to the support staff including the bowling coach Bharat Arun. The burly but soft-spoken man, known for blowing whistles to signal the change of batsmen during nets, has been focused on working out the right lengths for his fast bowlers to attack.
The point about the India's seamers being quicker than England's in their home conditions has been highlighted more than once. But as Shami pointed out, pace helps only if the bowler is accurate. "In any conditions pace is important," he said. "But what matters more is how strict you are in your line and length. After that if you bowl quick and can get reverse swing, then you get more benefit out of pace. We have a pace battery that bowls on a controlled line and length."
Shami added that a fast bowler's success depends on his ability to read the pitch. "It depends on the conditions, how much the ball is carrying and how much bounce you can get. Where can we beat the batsmen, in how many areas can we get them to play? As a fast bowler, you need to read a wicket quickly, assess what your length and your line should be. That is our main task - how quickly you assess that and how quickly you get down to work. Obviously if you get good bounce, you pitch it up."
The lush greenery around the ground coupled with a strip that looks faintly green makes playing five fast bowlers a tempting thought. However, Shami is not getting carried away. He reckons a spinner will still be crucial in the second half of the match, especially since the forecast is for a sunny weekend.
As important as Kohli's heroics have been, India's fast men have been their heartbeat. They have not panicked. They have shown aggression and defence in equal measure. They have marched together and forced England's batsmen to retreat.