By Neil Robinson 08/03/06
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Test side embarking upon a tour of India must, beyond all other qualities, be possessed of experience. So testing are the conditions for the novice that an England side, deprived for various reasons of its two most experienced batsmen, its most potent bowler and containing no less than three debutants, was given little chance of success at the start of this series. But in the event two of those three rookies were to play significant roles in a precociously outstanding performance which took England near to an unlikely victory and gave them great heart for the rest of the series.
Alistair Cook, a 21 year-old left handed opener from Essex, best known for smashing 200 in a day off Ricky Pontingís Australians last summer, contributed a cool 60 and an even more assured 104 not out, to become the fourth youngest debut centurion in Englandís Test history. Monty Panesar, the left-arm spinner from Northants, and the first Sikh to represent England, bowled long and accurate spells with more body in his action than I have seen from an English spinner in 25 years of obsessional cricket-watching. He claimed the scalp of Sachin Tendulkar as his first in Test cricket and produced two dream balls, pitching middle and spinning to hit the top of off-stump, from around the wicket, to dismiss Mohammad Kaif in the first innings and Rahul Dravid in the second. The third member of the trio, Somerset all-rounder Ian Blackwell, failed in his one effort with the bat and was the least used of Englandís bowlers, but he showed enough control and guile in Indiaís second innings to suggest that this will not be his only outing at this level, even if he makes way for Liam Plunkett for the second Test at the more seam-friendly Mohali.
Cookís 60 was the foundation for Englandís 393 after Andrew Flintoff gratefully won his first toss as England captain. But the tourists would have fallen far short of that total had it not been for an immaculate undefeated 134 by Paul Collingwood, who thus made up for falling narrowly short of his maiden century twice in the third Test in Pakistan. A couple of loose shots and a couple of debatable lbw decisions (no worse than India were to suffer later) meant that Collingwood was left to work with the tail to ensure that his own innings, and that of his team, would go the distance. Harmison blasted an entertaining and orthodox 39 off 42 balls, but Collingwood was still well short of three figures when last man Panesar, renowned as one of the rabbits of English cricket, arrived at the crease. But it was soon clear that the Northamptonshire man has been working hard on his batting this winter. There was no great range of strokes on display, but the defence was competent and mostly untroubled. Collingwood, whose shovelling leg-side play is not the most attractive, but who can still thrill when he hits boldly over the top, had just the support he needed in bringing up his well-deserved hundred, and going well beyond.
393 might have felt like a competent recovery for England, but on a flat pitch with a lightning outfield there was every likelihood that Indiaís strong batting line-up would take them well beyond it. Despite losing Sehwag to an airy drive early on, Dravid and Wasim Jaffer looked like giving them just the start they needed as day two drew to a close. But a touch of good fortune in the form of overnight rain which freshened up the pitch and slowed down the outfield gave England just the spur they needed. Matthew Hoggard did the rest. Bowling a perfect line and length with just the slightest hint of movement, Hoggard reduced India to 190-7 just after lunch. A recovery followed, Anil Kumble sticking with the durable Kaif until a superb over from Harmison just before the close eventually persuaded Kumble to give the edge. Panesar struck almost immediately to remove Kaif, then next morning Hoggard produced another fine off-cutter to trap Sreesanth lbw and finish the innings off with India still a worrying 70 behind.
A fine opening stand of 95 extended the lead still further before Strauss was caught behind off Pathan. Bell soon followed in identical fashion, but Kevin Pietersen came in to play an increasingly belligerent innings which allowed Cook to cruise calmly towards the century he deserved. On the face of it Cookís style is a little one-paced, but he had little trouble nudging the single to give Pietersen the strike when he wanted. Like Chris Broad, the easy clip off the pads was his stock in trade, but in the second innings the Indian bowlers gave him fewer opportunities there and he was able to show some fine drives through the off-side. There seemed no obvious weakness in his game save for a limitation in his range of strokes natural in a young opener. That, with the slowness of the pitch, could be the only qualification in his praise.
Pietersen began to expand his game as the need to accelerate towards a declaration grew. He skied a catch attempting a big leg-side hit once too often, otherwise he too would surely have made a hundred. Cook, now aware that he needed to reach his own landmark before the close, also began to take chances and was lucky to survive a straightforward caught and bowled chance off Harbhajan on 70. Pietersen had been even luckier to survive a return catch off Kumble which was referred to the third umpire, not to mention a dolly that was spilled at mid-off by Sreesanth. Englandís luck was holding as well as their nerve, and with Collingwood playing another calm hand, they were able to reach the close of day 4 on 297 for 3, 367 ahead. It was no surprise when they declared first thing on day 5.
With the pitch still playing well, there was no doubt that England needed early wickets if they were to force the win. Sehwag, Indiaís most dangerous man in a run-chase, duly obliged by falling cheaply again, but thereafter there was little prospect of excitement. And then, in the last session with more than 200 still needed, India started to attack. Whether it was in the genuine hope of victory, or simply an attempt to make England sweat for a couple of hours is hard to say; they had shown little sign of even trying to stay within touch of the target up to that point, but even the normally staid Dravid was now revealing unexpected touches of unorthodoxy and daring.
Inevitably the increased risk of this tactic meant that wickets began to fall. Dravid was the first to go, losing his off-stump to Panesar, and when lower-order hitter Irfan Pathan came out at four all bets were off. For 25 balls Pathan set about Englandís bowling, smashing four fours and one six in his 35 before he was held by Strauss at slip off Flintoff. Jaffer completed his own maiden hundred before going the same way; Dhoni flayed and perished, Tendulkar too was frantic, but when Harbhajan fell for just 7, India were now just four wickets from defeat and still far from victory. The brakes were reapplied and soon bad light came down to end proceedings for good.
All in all it was an encouraging match for England, not least for their new captain, who wore his burden more lightly than most and seemed, happy fellow as he is, to be enjoying the responsibility, even if his bowling was not at its best. Before this series began Bob Woolmer, coach of Pakistan, said that England would need to avoid defeat in Nagpur and then push for victory at Mohali, where conditions are likely to favour their pace attack. So far so good, and the emergence of Panesar suggests they will not always be so reliant upon pace for wickets. But unpredictablility is the greatest certainty on an Indian tour and things, not least the condition of the pitch, could well change. The Indians, perhaps a little surprised by Englandís strength here, will go into the next match with their minds still more focused. They are likely to be a tougher proposition than ever.
England 393 (Collingwood 134*, Cook 60, Sreesanth 4-95) & 297-3 (Cook 104*, Pietersen 87, Strauss 46)
India 323 (Kaif 91, Jaffer 81, Kumble 58, Hoggard 6-57) & 260-6 (Jaffer 100, Dravid 71)
Man of the Match