England v India, 2nd npower Test, Trent Bridge, 2nd day July 31, 2011

Tale of the tails

On the second day at Trent Bridge, Rahul Dravid and Stuart Broad shined. But what could be the decider in the series is the distinct difference in capabilities between India and England's lower orders

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this Test match is that it remains on an even keel even though India have won three-fourth of it. Any team that wins four out of six sessions in the first two days should expect to carry a natural advantage in to the third day, but so dramatically impactful have England been in the sessions they have owned that they remain another couple of good sessions away from gaining an unassailable lead in this series.

Another monumental effort from Rahul Dravid, India's greatest match-winning batsman, failed to win a decisive advantage for his team, as Stuart Broad, the most compelling performer of this series, intervened in the most spectacular manner possible. He has experienced the joy of a hat-trick before, but school cricket somewhat pales in comparison to the stage of Test cricket. That he turned the match England's way in the space of seven balls, after Dravid had batted six hours to build India's platform, was a tribute to Test cricket itself.

It was the cruellest of twists for Dravid, who has been on the field for all but six hours and 20 minutes of the seven days during the series, and who had played one of the finest innings of his long and distinguished career. But Broad's spell was the reaffirmation of the most fundamental truth about cricket: batsmen set the pace, but bowlers provide the decisive thrust.

In the pre-series hype about the battle for the No. 1 spot in the ICC Test rankings, few scriptwriters saw it boiling down to a shootout between the India and England's tails. This Test is expected to keep turning, but one pattern has been incontrovertibly established: England have knocked the stuffing out of India in the matter of lower-order runs. In this Test, and consequently the series, that could end up being the difference.

The numbers tell the story vividly and strikingly. England lifted themselves from 85 for 5 to 221 on the first day with the last two wickets adding 97 runs; India capitulated from 267 for 4 to 288 all out in a matter of six overs to provide a dramatic twist to this thoroughly riveting Test.

The overall figures from the six completed innings in this series so far are even more astonishing. England's last five wickets have amassed 547 runs so far as against India's 220. And given that England declared twice at Lord's, their lower order now has an average of 60.77 against India's 14.67. As numerical evidence goes, nothing can be more damning.

In their three innings so far, India have lost their last five wickets for 46, 36, and 15 runs. MS Dhoni has been outscored by a massive margin by Matt Prior and his dismissal on the second day at Trent Bridge was the outcome of a poor stroke; Harbhajan Singh, who has scored two hundreds and two half-centuries in his last ten Tests, has never looked like scoring a run here; only Ishant Sharma among the tail has looked inclined to get behind the line.

Of course the conditions make a difference. Invariably, lower-order batsmen find it far more difficult to cope with unfamiliar challenges. Even top-order batsmen have struggled with the moving ball in both Tests, and it must be an advantage that Trent Bridge is Broad and Graeme Swann's home ground. But Test matches are tougher to win when your batting line-up ends at No. 6.

The series isn't even halfway through yet, but plenty of comparisons have already been made with the 2005 Ashes. In that vein, it would be fair to put Broad's performance in this series parallel to Andrew Flintoff's six years ago. Broad does not quite have Flintoff's presence or his menace, but apart from his first-ball duck in the first innings at Lord's, he has always made things happen.

For a man who cut a desolate figure against Sri Lanka only last month, the turnaround has been sensational. James Anderson has swung the ball more, and Chris Tremlett extracted more bounce than him, but Broad has provided the breakthroughs. That he was a fifty-fifty choice for the first XI before the series now seems staggering. With him batting at No. 9 and Swann at 10, England now have the deepest batting since South Africa had the luxury of Shaun Pollock at No. 9. It makes them a harder team to beat.

Conversely, Dravid has run out of partners in both the Tests. His dismissal on Saturday, through a slice to third man, was uncharacteristic, but it was a stroke of desperation. For over six hours he had provided an exhibition of Test-match batting of the highest quality. For his innings to end with a wild flail was a travesty.

Even though Broad conceded England were still behind in this game, the chase in the final innings will be tricky. The best possible way for India's tail to avoid another embarrassment would be to ensure that there are not too many to chase in the first place.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo