Late wickets lift England after India threaten to cut loose
This is no pitch on which to be a bowler. After England's batsman, and bowlers, had run up 487, India's second wicket partnership of Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid ran through a delightful array of strokes to blunt the England attack that had received an early fillip when Matthew Hoggard bowled Wasim Jaffer in the first over of the innings. From that point onwards, the fielders were chasing leather, just as the Indians had done for a majority of the day until Ashley Giles cut short Sehwag when such a dismissal appeared highly unlikely and Andrew Flintoff accounted for nightwatchman Ashish Nehra in the last over of the day.
Indian coach John Wright said in the press conference at the end of the first day that he thought two early wickets on the second morning would put his side right back into contention. He got half his wish in the fourth over of the morning of the over when Alec Stewart pushed forward indeterminately to Zaheer Khan to be lbw without adding to his overnight total of 19. However, before the second wicket of the morning fell, Nasser Hussain and Andrew Flintoff embarked on an explosive partnership of 93 runs from 18 overs.
Flintoff, after one extravagant force off the back foot backward of point, drove Zaheer ferociously through the off side twice. Indeed, the first was so fierce that it went straight through Sourav Ganguly fielding at wide mid-off as well. The Indian captain would have been pleased to see the next ball driven equally hard but to the straighter mid-off boundary. At least, he would have been pleased for his physical well-being if not for the good of his team.
With Hussain playing his shots crisply and with great authority and Flintoff in quite murderous mood as he plundered an increasingly threadbare attack, England were progressing to a dominant position. Hussain went past 150, while Flintoff brought up his fifty by advancing down the pitch to hoist Anil Kumble into the depths of the Compton Stand with imperious ease. As well as that six there were nine fours in his 57-ball fifty.
England's progress was checked, however when Flintoff wafted lazily outside off stump to touch Agarkar to Ajay Ratra behind the wicket. That was the end of one over, and off the first ball of Agarkar's next, Hussain's seven-hour vigil came to an end with an identical entry in the scorebook.
Craig White and Ashley Giles took England through to lunch, at which point England were 372 for seven, and then went on. White took the opportunity of a flat pitch and tired attack to re-establish himself in the England team. The pair had taken the score along to 390 when Giles was bowled by Nehra and the end should have been in sight with just Simon Jones and Hoggard to come.
"Just" proved to be anything but the right word for either of them, especially Jones who was making his debut as a bowler but who flourished with the bat. He put on 62 with White in ten overs, in which time he helped himself to 44 runs with a six and seven fours. A fifty on debut looked likely until he skied Kumble to long-on where Agarkar - inconvenienced by the sun, it must be said - dropped an otherwise simple catch but, next ball, he fell at slip.
White went on to his fifty in company with Yorkshire colleague Hoggard who held up an end and even played some genuine shots of his own before White was stumped off Kumble and the Indian suffering in the field finally came to an end. Hoggard found a beauty in his first over to clip Wasim Jaffer's pad on its way to off-stump to have the opener bowled for one. Rahul Dravid came in to join Virender Sehwag.
With this pair showing just how flat the pitch is, the England attack was blunted. Giles soon had to abandon plans to bowl his left-arm spin over the wicket and went round, while new-boy Jones drew appreciation from the crowd when he went through the 90 mph barrier, but caused little concern to the batsmen. They applied to old adage that the faster the ball goes onto the bat, the faster it goes off it, especially when the point of contact is the middle.
It was difficult to see when the next wicket would come. Indeed, if there would be another one. After a partnership 126, however, Sehwag was out to Giles in rather unconventional fashion when on 84. He drove onto his pad and from there the ball found its way to the stumps.
Nehra came in as nightwatchman but failed to survive the last over of the day when Flintoff, bowling round the wicket, got a ball to straighten enough for umpire Rudi Koertzen to give the bowler the decision for India to close on 130 for three. Those with tickets for Saturday will already be licking their lips at the prospect of seeing Sachin Tendulkar in search of his first Lord's century.