Captain Cook avenges his bowlers
The wrestle for supremacy in Mumbai continued on another taut day of spin-dominated cricket at the Wankhede. England applied a tight squeeze in the morning, whilst at times looking a little stroppier with the cricketing fates than a team who has their opponents at 300-odd for 7 should be. They constricted the previously rampant Ashwin, and finally dismissed Pujara at the 790th attempt, sending the Granite Gujarati's series average plummeting from infinity to a disappointing 382, as Swann and Panesar generated more turn and bounce than India's three-prong tweak-team were able to extract in England's reply.
Cook, attacking and defending with formidable Pujara-like precision, survived some near misses against Ashwin, but was otherwise regally serene, as he has so often been since his Brisbane breakthrough two years ago to the day. He escaped a tough low chance to slip in the final over, when Sehwag's hands unluckily missed the ball by about 18 inches, as he stood bolt upright in the manner of a man who either was trying to demonstrate the best way not to prepare for a slip catch off a spinner, or was mentally miles away, trying to think of a word that rhymes with orange for a new song about the international fruit pulping industry.
The England skipper, who, after several years of moderate returns against the world's leading teams, is emerging as one of England's greatest modern batsmen, also took the lead in implementing another new Pujara-neutralising tactic. Throughout his innings, he employing the sweep shot with a power, selectivity and control that was frankly almost unpatriotically un-English, and, having understandably reasoned that his bowlers' 790 strike-rate against Pujara was less than optimal, got down on one knee and absolutely clobbered the ball straight into the Indian No. 3's unamused ribcage.
Pujara was helped from the field. Cook was not finished. Concerned that Pujara might miss the next Test and be replaced by Indian 12th man and Ranji Trophy run-machine Ajinkya Rahane, he then executed another fielder-clouting hammerblow. Rahane also collapsed like a careless child's matchstick replica Eiffel Tower which was wrongly selected in a rugby match, and hobbled back to the security of the dressing room. The flower of new-generation Indian batsmanship duly incapacitated, Cook returned to business.
What made this second thwack even more impressive was the fact that, before his injury, Rahane had displayed almost preternatural anticipation and bravery at short-leg, moving before the ball had even been hit to throw himself into the line of leather. So Cook had not only to perform the sweep shot to perfection, but also to guess where Rahane would guess he would hit the ball. It was a staggering piece of marksmanship by the captain, one of the most clinical snipings in batting history.
As Ashwin had yesterday, Pietersen transformed a slow-scoring day with a sublime last-session assault, demonstrating once again how his form fluctuates with such high frequency you could broadcast a radio station on it. He emerged from his first-Test funk with a clonking first-ball boundary, followed by two hours of controlled stroke-playing brilliance, punctuated occasionally by the calculated risks and technical uncertainties that make him so unremittingly compelling to watch.
England were assisted by some bafflingly cautious field-placing by Dhoni. When Cook had scored 40 from 111 balls, having hit one boundary in the previous hour, and with two wickets having fallen in quick succession, the England captain was faced with a long-on, a deep midwicket, and deep backward square-leg, and a sweeper on the cover boundary. I am not privy to the private coaching dossiers in which teams pinpoint their opponents' weaknesses, but I imagine few of them would describe Cook as "likely to try to smash a six over three boundary fielders at a delicate knife-edge moment in the Test match, just to prove what a big man he is".
England at times were guilty of the same defensiveness against the similarly-paced batting of Pujara. Most teams seem to take this option readily in cricket today. There may be a reason for it, but it is not glaringly obvious to the outside observer (albeit that outside observers tend to be unacquainted with the pressures of captaining a nation).
Cook, who had scored 30 of his first 36 runs in boundaries, and amassed the grand total of just one single in the first 73 balls of his innings, was thus granted risk-free accumulation into the cavernous in-field gaps for the rest of the day. Only 16 of his subsequent 51 were scored in fours, and England established parity, with the potential to take control this morning.
● Meanwhile, in Adelaide, a strange and captivating Test between Australia and South Africa has hurtled along jauntily, powerdriven by some extraordinary batting, a plethora of bowling injuries, and the most merciless prolonged savaging of a bowler in international cricket history. Imran Tahir's 0 for 180 from 23 overs was the most expensive of the 16,117 innings analyses in which a bowler has bowled 20 overs or more over the 135-year history of the Test match. His 7.82 'economy rate' - a term that seems inappropriate, cruel, and Greek ‒ obliterated the previous record of 6.45, which had stood not-very-proudly for 110 years, ever since another South African, JH Sinclair, was pummelled by another bunch of Australians, conceding 129 in 20 overs.
Sinclair had the consolation of taking 4 top-order baggy green wickets, however, and helping dismiss Australia for a hare-brained 296 in 51 overs, so was probably rather more satisfied with his performance than the unfortunate Tahir.
Australia duly exacted some revenge for South Africa treating their thirty-something leg-spinner Bryce McGain like a pride of Coliseum lions would have treated a plump, unarmed amateur gladiator in a zebra-print bodysuit. McGain's 0-149 off 18 still holds the little-celebrated title of Most Expensive 15-Over-Plus Spell In Test History.
Most reputable bookmakers confidently expect Australian skipper Michael Clarke to play more Test matches in future than Tahir. Since breaking 18-month, 12-Test barren century drought (in which time he averaged 26), in Colombo last September, Clarke has scored three centuries, three double hundreds, and a triple ton in 14 Tests, rediscovering the lightning footwork and dazzling strokeplay which he has sometimes mislaid in his undulating career.
The most ridiculous sight of the Test has been that of the crocked Jacques Kallis batting without a runner. Of all the things that needed rectifying in cricket, injured batsmen using runners should have been far down the priority list, alongside other microscopic issues such as batsmen potentially conveying covert national security information to the TV-watching public by inadvertently chewing their gum in Morse Code.
Were runners really used dishonestly to the extent that they needed to be legislated out of existence? Were there really swathes of batsmen who thought: "Well, I'm batting beautifully, a century is within sight, but I'm a little bit tired so I think I'd rather be run out due to a comical mix-up between my batting partner and a guy standing thirty yards away trying to guess exactly where and how hard I've hit the ball"?
It seems particularly inane given that bowlers and fielders trot on and off the field like indecisive gluttons in and out of a sweet shop, often with seemingly no greater ptretext than wanting to check an eBay auction, or monitor how many insects have been caught in a dressing room spider's web they had noticed that morning.
Kallis, never one to be discombobulated by such idiocies, duly scored a superb 58 despite having the mobility of a beached sofa, a score which, given his recent form, he probably considered a catastrophic failure. He is 37 years old. Among over-35 Test batsmen, only Bradman has averaged more than Kallis' 76.9. A handy cricketer. And the joint-leading Test six-hitter of the decade so far.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer