Dravid leads India to commanding position at close of first day
India batted with great discipline throughout the first day of the third npower Test at Headingley, accepting the challenge presented to them by their captain, Sourav Ganguly. It was a brave decision to bat first on an overcast morning and on a pitch with a tinge of green to encourage the seam bowlers, but it was only Virender Sehwag who succumbed in a tense, hard-fought morning session. Rahul Dravid's century and Sanjay Bangar's contribution meant that India were in the guinea seats at stumps.
In such conditions there was the traditional movement for the bowlers, leaving Sehwag and Bangar to perhaps question the wisdom of batting first. They coped well for half an hour before Sehwag got the opportunity to address his captain on the subject in person. He got a ball from Matthew Hoggard that drew him into the drive and he edged to Andrew Flintoff at second slip as it left him.
That was the only punishable indiscretion in the morning, despite the fact that both Hoggard, operating down the hill, and Andrew Caddick probed outside the off-stump with five catchers in an arc from the wicket-keeper. Hoggard bowled a long, controlled spell of ten overs that cost a mere 20 runs despite the attacking fields. Caddick and Alex Tudor maintained the pressure and it says much for the resolve of the batsmen that they were not beaten more often.
Their efforts were all the more valuable in that the ball was not always behaving as expected. After digging out a couple from Tudor that kept low, Dravid was forced to take evasive action as a vicious ball climbed past his gloves and over the wicket-keeper for four byes. That was one of only four occasions when the ball reached the boundary on a morning that would have been anathema to those wanting quick thrills but was fascinating for anyone with an appreciation of proper Test cricket.
A similar rate of progress was maintained after lunch as the England bowlers toiled and the Indian batsmen picked up the odd run, played and missed or simply left alone. Every over was a test of patience and, even when the sun came out, the ball still swung and the batsmen were still happy to concentrate on survival.
It could be said that the bowlers became intoxicated with the sight of the ball snaking towards the slips instead of risking a faster scoring rate and making the batsmen play more. The batsmen, however, were not to be drawn and were just as watchful against the left-arm spin of Ashley Giles as they had been against the quicker bowlers.
One of the few risks taken was as Bangar went to his fifty with a single into the covers off Tudor. Had Michael Vaughan hit, Bangar would have been some way short. As it was, he reached his personal milestone from 166 balls. Dravid was marginally quicker, taking 153 balls as India added 74 runs in the 32 overs of the afternoon session.
After tea there was a suggestion that runs were a little easier to come by. The rate could certainly not be described as frenetic but it became respectable in the circumstances. England did not make things easier for themselves when Flintoff put down Bangar at slip off Tudor when the batsman had 53. Next ball, Dravid drove straight down the ground for four to emphasise the importance of the error.
England had to wait another nine overs before they saw the back of Bangar. Flintoff was bowling round the wicket from the Kirkstall Lane end when he induced the batsman to get a glove on an intended glance off a lifting ball to be well caught by Alec Stewart for 68 when he had batted for three minutes short of five hours. A splendid study in concentration.
Sachin Tendulkar came in to face a torrid time from Flintoff who was working up a fair head of steam despite the restrictions of his hernia. At the other end he faced Giles bowling over the wicket as the England captain tried to tighten the screw.
The new ball was taken, but it could not deny Dravid his hundred. He had just gone past the five-hour mark when he clipped Hoggard off his legs for his 14th boundary to bring up his 12th Test century and to confirm what a valuable member of the side he has become. These were not the conditions for flamboyant stroke play; they demanded application and the 29 year-old from Karnataka was perfectly suited to the role he played.
It was not the most exciting day's Test cricket the ground has witnessed, but it held the attention and India will sleep the sounder of the two sides. They are in a commanding position, while the England bowlers will content themselves with the fact that none of them bowled badly, but there will no doubt be a sneaking feeling that none of them were quite at the top of their game. They will need to be on the second day if India are not to get out of sight.