England dominate India 'A' at Jaipur
Had someone suggested to Nasser Hussain that he would encounter in India a pitch that was virtually undistinguishable from the outfield, the English skipper would probably have scoffed and asked him to get his head examined.
Yet, in Jaipur, for the final tour match ahead of the first Test, that is exactly what Hussain did encounter. On a green-top that beckoned seamers and medium-pacers almost seductively, Hussain won his third toss in a row and had no hesitation in opting to field.
Richard Johnson, in for Matthew Hoggard, took it upon himself to prove his captain right. In his very first over, he had opener Vinayak Mane caught behind and Yere Goud bowled. Before the sparsely dispersed spectators could blink their eyes in disbelief, Johnson struck again in his next over, removing Gautam Gambhir leg-before. Newly inducted Andrew Flintoff, hoping for a Test berth, decided that he wanted his share of the spoils and promptly had Rashmi Parida caught behind. India 'A' were 8/4, and the English attack suddenly looked sharper than a freshly minted guillotine.
It took some obdurate batting from local lad Gagan Khoda and Abhijit Kale to blunt the bowlers. Plumping for caution, the batsmen refrained from strokes with any element of risk, which helped the run-rate as much as the abominably slow outfield. Even the appearance of spin, in the form of Ashley Giles, did not stir their blood; Giles, hoping to prove match fitness ahead of Mohali, bowled with nice loop and some turn, but he did not get the bite that is so essential on the subcontinent.
India 'A' went in to lunch at 88/4, a reasonable recovery but by no means all that was needed on a pitch that looked increasingly doublepaced. Khoda fell to that very vagary of the track when a Flintoff delivery stayed low and, to compound matters, squirmed eel-like through the bat-pad gap to uproot off-stump. The dismissal ended Khoda's innings of 64 and a partnership of 114 runs.
Three overs after Kale reached his own half-century, Flintoff packed Reetinder Singh Sodhi off to the pavilion, caught behind off the faintest of edges. The twin strikes did little to disturb Kale's concentration; shrugging off edges and appeals, he hit the bad balls and defended stoutly otherwise. He was especially pleasing to watch against Giles, exposing the left-arm spinner's lack of variation by repeatedly dancing down the track to play him on either side of the wicket.
Resuming at 178/6 after tea, Kale and Ajay Ratra plodded their way past the 200-run mark. The only sign of aggression in their stand resulted in a six over mid-on that took Kale to his century, off 192 deliveries.
Having crossed that landmark, Kale retreated into his shell, emerging only when he was caught at short-leg off Richard Dawson. His partner Ratra fell in the very next over and, once Dawson had skipper Sunil Joshi trapped in front, the latter declared his side's innings closed at 233/9.
If India 'A' started catastrophically, the visitors could not have been more comfortable if they were asleep. Both Michael Trescothick and Mark Butcher, the latter in particular, motored along unfazed by any pitch vagaries, perceived or real. The Indian seamers, for their part, did not seem to know how to bowl on a pitch that, surprisingly in India, was loaded in their favour. Pitching either too short or too full, Iqbal Siddiqui and Dodda Ganesh gave Butcher many chances to free his arms, allowing him to race to 32 off 39 deliveries.
Although England will be pleased on the whole with their bowling performance today, they will look askance at their spin attack which, on pitches more placid and against the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, will be about as effective as a candle in a typhoon. Giles, Dawson and Martyn Ball, if they are to make an impression in the Tests, will have to maintain impeccable line and length, and perhaps bowl with more variation. Hussain, however, will sleep easier tonight, with the burly images of Flintoff, Johnson and Hoggard, red cherry in hands, etched comfortingly in his mind.