Sri Lanka were reeling on 31-3 while chasing a daunting 410-run victory target on Tuesday in a pollution-tainted third Test in New Delhi blighted by scenes of bowlers vomiting on the ground.
Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja struck twice in an over to rattle the visitors, who must bat out three more sessions to save the match and draw the series with top-ranked India.
Dhananjaya de Silva was on 13 and Angelo Mathews had yet to open his account when bad light stopped play at the smoggy Feroz Shah Kotla ground.
Fast bowler Mohammad Shami dismissed opener Sadeera Samarawickrama off a roaring bouncer but stopped in mid-over to vomit, crouching down and then gulping water.
He went on to complete the over but left the field shortly afterwards.
In the morning session it was Sri Lankan paceman Suranga Lakmal who threw up twice. He went to the dressing room briefly but returned to the field, bowling 14 overs and taking one wicket.
Groundsmen rushed in to cover the spot with sand and sawdust as smog in the heavily polluted Indian capital took centre stage for a fourth day in a row.
A doctor at the stadium examined three Sri Lankan players and said their vital signs were normal.
Skipper Virat Kohli, who made 50, declared India’s second innings on 246-5 after Rohit Sharma reached his half-century in the final session, setting the visitors a formidable victory target.
No Test team has chased down 410 since 2003, when the West Indies defeated Australia after making 418 runs.
Opener Shikhar Dhawan top-scored in India’s second innings with 67 on an easy wicket. Apart from Lakmal, Lahiru Gamage, Dilruwan Perera, Lakshan Sandakan and Dhananjaya de Silva took a wicket each.
Earlier, Sri Lanka were dismissed for 373, conceding a 163-run lead to India who had declared on 536 for seven.
But it was the hazardous smog in Delhi that again dominated the day.
The US embassy website showed concentrations of the smallest and most harmful particles at 398 — 15 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit. Conditions were even worse on Monday.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India said late Monday that New Delhi could be dropped as a venue during winter, when pollution across the region spikes.
BCCI secretary Amitabh Choudhary said venues would be reconsidered “in view of the situation which was encountered in the last two to three days”.
“The BCCI has been sensitive on the smog and fog matter over the years,” he added.
After three days of Australian dominance, Root took up the challenge of a record run chase with a fighting unbeaten half-century as the momentum began to shift towards England, roared on by their bellowing Barmy Army supporters.
In contrast, his counterpart Steve Smith, who attracted criticism for not enforcing the follow-on despite a 215-run first innings lead, burned two reviews in the space of three balls and put down a tough catch.
At the close of an absorbing fourth day in the first day-night Ashes Test, England were 176 for four with Root unconquered on 67 and nightwatchman Chris Woakes not out on five – 178 runs from victory with six wickets in hand heading into Wednesday’s final day.
The highest winning fourth innings at the Adelaide Oval is 315 for six by Australia against England in 1902.
“A win would be huge for us, both in terms of what it would do for our confidence as a team and we would be all square in the series,” England paceman James Anderson said.
“It would also have a potential effect on them (Australia) for a team to be in such a commanding position to then lose that,” he added.
“It’s very rare that a team declares and loses a game so if we can get a result tomorrow it would be huge for a number of reasons.”
Root had a leg before wicket decision on 32 off Nathan Lyon overturned on review, with the ‘Hawk-Eye’ tracker indicating the ball would have gone over the stumps.
Australia then lost their second and last review in the 43rd over when Dawid Malan survived an lbw challenge on three off Josh Hazlewood, with the ball again tracked as going over the stumps.
Adding to Smith’s anxiety, he also dropped Malan on eight in a sharp one-handed attempted catch at slip off Lyon.
“We’re still reasonably confident,” the Australia team bowling coach David Saker told reporters.
“Obviously, the last two days haven’t gone to plan … we’re still in front of the game but it’s getting closer and closer and Joe’s innings has made that possible,” he added.
“But if we can get his wicket in the morning I think the game changes quite quickly.”
After the chaos of the previous night’s session when Australia lost four wickets, England had a much better time under the lights. They only lost the wickets of James Vince and Malan and otherwise scored freely.
Vince was beaten by a pitched-up Mitchell Starc delivery, getting a big nick to Peter Handscomb at slip for 15. Malan put on 78 with Root before he was bowled by Pat Cummins for 29.
England lost openers Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman before the dinner break.
Lyon won a successful lbw review to remove Cook (16), ending a 53-run opening stand with Stoneman, who was snapped up in the gully for 36.
The Australians were knocked over for 138 off 58 overs at tea but, bolstered by their 215-run innings lead, this left England with a record chase.
England’s all-time leading wicket-taker Anderson took five for 43 – his first five-wicket haul in Australia – while fellow paceman Woakes captured four for 36.
Usman Khawaja and Starc were joint top scorers with just 20 each in Australia’s modest second innings.
England kept the Australians under pressure after they resumed the day at 53 for four.
Day two of the Test saw a dramatic sight perhaps never seen before on the cricket field. Sri Lanka’s fielder took to wearing surgical masks in a bid to withstand Delhi’s worsening air quality in the face of excessive pollution and smog.
Sri Lanka pacer Suranga Lakmal stopped in his run-up as he started coughing and had to leave the field to receive medical attention. Three times play was stopped as the visitors complained of struggling with difficult conditions.
The Indians were clearly not happy with the disruptions and skipper Virat Kohli expressed his displeasure in clear terms by throwing away his bat in disgust. Head coach Ravi Shastri came charging onto the field to have a word with the umpires. The Delhi crowd meanwhile aimed their taunts at the islander as chants of ‘losers, losers’ echoed around the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium.
The general feeling among the Indian camp was that the Sri Lankans were playing up the situation to kill some valuable time in the Test.
The BCCI also made its stance clear on the subject when acting president CK Khanna made a statement to the media at the end of the day.
“If 20,000 people in the stands did not have a problem and the Indian team did not face any issue, I wonder why Sri Lankan team made a big fuss. I will need to talk to the secretary and ask him to write to the Sri Lanka Cricket,” he said.
Sri Lanka coach Nic Pothas had a completely different point of view though as he narrated the ordeal his players had to go through.
“They had got extremely high at one point, we had players coming in at one point and vomiting. There were oxygen cylinders in the dressing room,” said the coach.
“It is not normal for players to suffer in that way while playing the game. From our point of view it has to be stated that it is a very unique case. We had to play cricket. Under all circumstance, we wanted to play cricket. We just wanted to have some clarity on the safely of players,” he added.
There is a possibility that Dinesh Chandimal’s men might have overplayed the situation but there is simply no denying that the pollution levels in Delhi are at a hazardous level at the moment.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) spiked to 368 on Monday morning with the met department warning that it is expected to cross 400 in the coming days. For the record, the AQI at the same time at Adelaide where the second Ashes Test is currently underway hovered between two to six.
What’s currently happening in Delhi is unprecedented in the history of the sport. Games have been delayed or interrupted due to bad lights and inclement weather but never before has one heard about a match being stopped due to pollution.
It is one for the BCCI as well as the ICC to moot. For the BCCI, the question is why Delhi was awarded a game in the first place in peak winter when smog levels are at their highest and air quality at its lowest.
For the ICC, it will be wise to chart a course of actions for such incidents in the future and set some guidelines with regards to air quality levels in future matches. With no precedent in the past, the match referee at Delhi was put in a tight spot with both sets of team conflicted on the matter.
The health and safety of the players, officials, staff and fans should be paramount and while what happened on Sunday was not something we like to see on a cricket field, it is definitely one the ICC and the BCCI cannot ignore.