Chris Woakes showed England what they have been missing for the last year, leading the charge as India were bowled out for 191 on a tough first day for batsmen at the fourth LV= Insurance Test.
Thirteen wickets fell at the Kia Oval as the rival attacks traded blows, England closing on 53 for three after losing newly-crowned world number one batsman Joe Root to a beauty minutes before stumps.
The day belonged to Woakes, though, as he returned from 12 frustrating months out of the team with a superb haul of four for 55.
Since being named as England’s player of the year in 2020, he has been kept out by Covid complications in Sri Lanka, non-selection in India, a mandatory rest period after the IPL and a freak heel injury suffered on his own staircase.
Despite those travails, he barely missed a beat on his comeback and would have added to his tally had Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant not been dropped in the slips.
Jasprit Bumrah responded by ripping out both openers to leave England six for two in reply, before Umesh Yadav jagged one through the tiniest of gaps between bat and pad to oust Root for 21 late on.
India’s spirits had earlier been buoyed by a record-breaking 57 from number eight Shardul Thakur, who launched an indiscriminate assault on the home attack, clubbing seven fours and three sixes to steal Sir Ian Botham’s 35-year-old record for the fastest Test fifty on English soil. In 1986, Botham had done it in 32 balls; in 2021 Thakur managed it in 31.
Root won the toss and cheerfully sent India in, persuaded by clouds overhead and a tinge of green under foot. There was early swing on offer, but for half-an-hour the odd doubt may have crept in as the openers moved comfortably to 28.
Root pulled James Anderson after conceding 20 from his first four overs, allowing Woakes an early gallop.
After 11 matches and 12 months of waiting, there was no hint of ring rust, immediately foxing Rohit Sharma with one that hooped away. The last ball of his first over was shorter and kicked as it came back in, clipping the shoulder of the bat and sailing through to Jonny Bairstow.
With a breakthrough in the bag, Woakes and Ollie Robinson stitched together a sequence of seven successive maidens, freezing the score for 42 deliveries. Each one upped the pressure and Robinson cashed in when he nipped one back into KL Rahul from a fuller length to get his just rewards for an opening burst of 8-6-8-1.
England made it 54 for three at lunch, Anderson having the lethargic Cheteshwar Pujara caught behind, leaving Virat Kohli in charge of the rebuilding work.
He should have walked for 22 just after the restart, edging a Woakes ball that left him, but a misunderstanding between Rory Burns and Root in the cordon offered a welcome reprieve.
With Woakes nagging away at the Pavilion End, Root soon had the chance to make amends and held on to Ravindra Jadeja at ankle height. The all-rounder had surprisingly been promoted, but did nothing to justify his move to number five.
Kohli went on to make 50, temporarily rediscovering the strut that has occasionally threatened to desert him in recent times and driving crisply through the covers. But there was a sloppiness to his dismissal, looking to work Robinson from outside off to mid-wicket but feathering behind.
The softness in India’s middle order was exposed again, Ajinkya Rahane too timid before edging Craig Overton to new vice-captain Moeen Ali and Rishabh Pant too reckless when he slogged Woakes straight up in the air.
It took Thakur to cast off the shackles, swinging his bat with impunity in a remarkable cameo. There was nothing refined about his blitz of boundaries but he did some real damage as Woakes, Overton and Robinson all drifted into his hitting arc. One by one they disappeared into the stands.
The fun ended as quickly as it had began, with three wickets in four balls. Thakur was lbw to Woakes on review, Bumrah was dropped then run out by Overton in a slapstick moment and Bairstow plucked a one-handed catch to see off Yadav.
The home side found batting no easier, with Bumrah persuading Burns to drag down his stumps then watching as Haseeb Hameed’s elaborate cross-batted slash left him caught behind for a duck.
Root and Dawid Malan (26no) restored calm, working the ball around comfortably until Yadav produced a great leveller.
Not much has got past Root in this series, but both he and the crowed were stunned as the ball nipped in sharply to clean him up through the gate.