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The series opener between England and India already has a storyline worthy of its 2000th Test status, and a compelling final day awaits
July 24, 2011
Their miracle workers remain in the middle, but India face a mighty struggle to save this Test. The hope of victory has long been snuffed out; their batting order has been disrupted by injury and illness; and they have toiled on the field for close to three days with three bowlers. While Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have bailed India out of more hopeless situations in the past, batting on the last day at Lord's against England's bowling attack will test their skills, if not temperament, more than Kolkata and Adelaide, where they mounted their legendary 300-run partnerships.
Sachin Tendulkar, who was off the field for two sessions with a viral infection, cannot bat until half an hour before lunch or till five wickets are down. Gautam Gambhir, the regular opener and the hero of a couple of gritty draws, has suffered a sickening blow to the elbow. But Dravid, who is yet to be dismissed in this Test, and Laxman - who it seems cannot summon his best unless a crisis beckons in the final innings - have managed to survive, with some luck and plenty of fortitude and skill, a tough final session to keep India afloat in a contest worthy of the 2000th Test.
In Test cricket, the journey is often more interesting than the outcome. At tea on the fourth day, the match stood where everyone, including both the teams, would have expected it to be - England then declared with a lead of 457 and India faced the prospect of surviving more than 120 overs to go to Trent Bridge with a clean slate - but what a route it took.
For about half an hour before lunch, India, chasing the match almost all through the Test, turned predator, and England bore the look of the hunted. Ishant Sharma breezed in, the ball zipped around, catching men waited expectantly, and the Indian fans found their voice as England lost four wickets for eight runs in 5.2 overs.
From what was meant to be a smooth and routine passage to a point from where England could declare safely with time in hand to bowl India out, there arrived the prospect of an Indian chase of around 330 runs; still mighty tough, but not beyond the realm of achievable. It was Test match cricket at its most sensationally unpredictable.
Among the many wonderful things about Test cricket is that it offers the prospect of redemption within the course of a match. Ishant Sharma, after his high in the West Indies where he was the Man of the Series, was so listless and out of sorts in the first innings that India were effectively reduced to a one-man seam attack after Zaheer Khan's withdrawal. With its pronounced slope, Lord's is a difficult ground to adjust to for a first-timer, but life generally rewards those who learn from mistakes, and the key change Ishant made in the second innings was adjusting his length.
Just as Stuart Broad had proved in the Indian innings, this track rewards those prepared to pitch it up. Even the wickets Ishant got with the shorter balls were the result of his having bowled fuller earlier. Kevin Pietersen was already pressing forward when he got a snorter, and Eoin Morgan was almost surprised by the bouncer that forced a mistimed pull.
Inevitably, though, India's three-man attack ran out of juice and India's intensity in the field dropped as Matt Prior built two vital partnerships to drive England into the ascendancy again. The match returned to script again in the final session as the Indian batsmen began their struggle against three high-quality pace bowlers of contrasting styles.
Throughout this match there have been discussions about whether Prior is the world's best wicketkeeper-batsman in Tests and, purely on the evidence of this Test, Prior has sealed the case. As the full package, MS Dhoni is among the most influential figures in world cricket, but Prior has been a match-turner for England at the vital position of No. 7, and twice in this Test he has swung the innings coming in after the loss of quick wickets.
He has a well-organised defence and the confidence to play his strokes even in tough conditions, and while square on the off side is his favourite scoring area, he is accomplished enough to tuck away to leg when the bowling is straight. England have scored 327 runs while Prior has been at the crease in this match, and while Dhoni has shown his versatility by running in to bowl, Prior has comfortably won the battle of the wicketkeepers.
Dhoni has had a poor match behind the wickets, and while it is always a challenge to keep at Lord's, he got himself into tangles with his footwork, leading to two missed chances. He managed to pouch an edge from Ian Bell in the first innings by diving to his right, but today he simply let an edge from Stuart Broad fly past with a whimper of an attempt. He did save a Test here with his batting in 2007, and he might yet have the opportunity to redeem himself on the fifth day.
This Test could end in a hurry on the final day, with the scorecard presenting the picture of a one-sided affair, but the truth is that barring the second day, when India were ragged with the ball and in the field, this match has already provided everything that you could want from high-class Test cricket: an absorbing contest between bat and the ball, swing and seam, batsmen fighting through tough periods, strokes of the highest pedigree, dramatic turnarounds, one double hundred and two hundreds, a five-for and two four-wickets hauls.
There is still the possibility of a draw, but it will hardly be a dull one. If you happen to be in and around London, queue up early at the counters tomorrow. A contest beckons and tickets are available at a bargain. And if it counts for anything, it's the last chance to watch Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar in Test whites at this ground.
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