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Foul weather disrupted the first day at Lord's, but the overhead gloom also gave just enough encouragement to India's seamers to make for an intriguing battle
July 21, 2011
At some stage in this benighted summer, the persistent rain will surely have to abate. Unfortunately, on a day that was intended as a celebration of all that is good in Test cricket, the heavens just couldn't resist getting mixed up in the action once again. In the England-Sri Lanka series just gone, some 369 overs were lost in the course of three Tests, so today's shortfall of 40.4 was typical of yet another frustrating day at the office.
Nevertheless, the gloom still served a purpose, for the action that was possible - particularly in the hour-and-a-half before lunch - was a fine and timely tribute to Test cricket's most compelling virtues. Lord's, as they say, is a venue where you look up, not down, and sure enough when India won the toss and took their chance to bowl first, they quickly settled into an attacking rhythm that wasn't seriously disrupted until Zaheer Khan left the field with an ominous twinge in his hamstring.
The significance of that scare won't be known until the morning. However, England's batting line-up still displayed a diligence that befits a group of players in some of the most pristine form imaginable, and was all the more impressive given how hard they were made to work for their returns. Not since Pakistan's pacemen were zipping the ball both ways last summer, before the spot-fixing zenith, had England been subjected to such an examination of their credentials. And whereas they wobbled on numerous occasions back then, this time they dug in like a side that has not been bowled out for less than 486 in five consecutive contests.
"I think it's pretty even," England's top-scorer on the day, Jonathan Trott, said. "The pitch looked good when the covers came off, and at Lord's with the overhead conditions and a pitch that's been under cover, most teams would bowl first. You obviously want to make inroads as a bowling unit, and we did well to combat that and played pretty well. We are pretty happy with where we find ourselves, and there's a lot of hard work tomorrow."
From the moment Zaheer zipped his first delivery through the air, off the seam and into the upturned fingers of MS Dhoni behind the stumps, the ball did all the talking as England's batsmen were subjected to the sort of interrogation in which the only appropriate response was "no comment". Survival in those circumstances was England's first and only objective, and though Alastair Cook - for once - was unable to do so, India's end-of-day tally of two wickets was below par for the conditions. It left their coach, Duncan Fletcher, ruing a length that had given their quarry too much time to adjust and avoid the edge.
All the same, after being bullied to all corners of Taunton by Somerset last week, this was a vital demonstration of India's bowling credentials in traditional English conditions. Zaheer's 0 for 72 spell in that contest could have become 3 for 9 in 12.4 overs today had Dhoni not ushered a regulation edge from Trott to the boundary, while the extravagance of Praveen Kumar's outswing took the breath away at times. It's arguable that they were bowling from the wrong ends for much of the day - a little less zip down the slope and Praveen could have snagged many an edge, but England now know the extent to which they'll need their wits about them.
India's early strikes could have undermined a less composed outfit. When he played down the wrong line to Zaheer, Cook was sent on his way for his lowest Test score since the final innings of the 2010 summer against Pakistan. Moreover it was the first time he had failed to pass fifty since England's Ashes defeat at the WACA back in December, six innings ago. However, the shock of the setback did not initially rattle his partner Andrew Strauss, whose eventual dismissal at Zaheer's hands seemed a rare moment of recklessness, rather than anything more sinister to England's series prospects.
The hook shot hasn't been a particular flaw in Strauss's armoury since his grim run of form in 2006-07, when he stepped out of his comfort zone in a bid to fill the void left by his more forceful opening partner, Marcus Trescothick. He fell in that manner twice at Brisbane and again at The Oval against India nine months later, when Zaheer was again the bowler, but on this occasion, it did not seem indicative of anything other than overconfidence. The weather had been threatening to clear, and England sensed a chance to raise the tempo after a dour morning. Nevertheless, the fact that Ishant Sharma was still lurking at deep backward square was intriguing. Perhaps Fletcher knows his former pupil better than the batsman does himself.
Kevin Pietersen is another man whose card will have been marked by India's coach, but his initial foray was atypically cautious, not least when Praveen began operating with Dhoni standing up to the wicket. Against a lesser opponent, Pietersen might well have taken the bait and been left to regret it, but the manner in which he built up his form throughout the recent Sri Lanka series suggests he is back in the zone mentally. An overnight score of 22 from 73 balls is no more than a beginning, but he'll take it.
So far, Pietersen's performance has had echoes of his determined century in this same fixture four years ago. He said back then he'd never had to work harder for three figures, and while it sounded at the time like standard KP hubris, by the time England had been beaten 1-0 in the three-match series, his assessment seemed far more justified. Zaheer was the thorn in England's flesh then, as he was for 13.3 overs today. The speed of his recovery could hardly be more critical to the balance of the match.
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