India's rudderless attack exposed
The instant that captured India's day at Edgbaston came right at the end. On the first ball of the last over in the technicolour glow of an English summer evening. Having dropped Eoin Morgan off a simple chance at first slip, Rahul Dravid, immovable batsman, unflappable man, tore the blue India cap off his head and flung it to the ground. Flung it like he wanted it to drill a hole in the ground. Flung it like he wanted to dive into that hole after it.
It wasn't a muted gesture of controlled despair or an invisible pang of disappointment. It was pure fury; rage boiling over. It was the second catch Dravid had dropped in the day, it was the third by India and the second time Morgan had been given a life. It was the culmination of what had been a day of pure melee for the Indians: they conceded 372 runs, dropped three simple chances and the first of only three wickets to fall had come off a no-ball that was missed by the umpires, from a spinner who had infuriatingly sent down eight no-balls.
Thursday drove India's men over the edge, made them act out of character. While Dravid's finale was tempestuous, Sreesanth theatrics dissipated. Savagely pulled by Alastair Cook for a boundary for being short and wide for his first over with a new ball, Sreesanth adopted the game's pose of baffled enquiry. In Indian dance terminology, you can call it the teapot mudra. Hands on hips, complete annoyance on face. It was untidy, confused and comic, much like India were in the field.
England scored at more than four an over on a wicket that was easing and began to show the first signs of turn towards the end of the day; they are 232 runs ahead, have enough wickets in the bag, and for the first time in the series, had their innings set up more than handsomely by their openers. The Indians know it needn't have been this way but the reason that it is, lies within as much as it does in England's bowling. There have been two points in this series where India's bowling has been completely unlike Thursday. In those two phases, they have stood up to full height and looked on the other side of ragged, despite carrying old legs in the field and not many runs to go with.
The first was at Lord's when Ishant Sharma ripped out the heart of England's middle order on the fourth morning, leaving them at 5 for 67 at lunch. The second came at Trent Bridge, with England at 8 for 124. It is the time when escape hatches need to be slammed shut, air needs to be knocked out of lungs and it is where turnarounds begin. It is what competitive teams do and what No. 1 teams have in their DNA. It is as Harsha Bhogle described it on his Time Out show, cricket's version of the break-point that champion capitalise on almost instinctively.
In being unable to do so not once but twice, India have displayed a fallibility that, regardless of the result of the series or the No.1 ranking, is now their bauble of burden. What the bowlers have lacked at times like these is the man to drive them onwards, to give their pack direction. Not the senior pros or even the captain, but one of their own.
There would no doubt have been moments in the day when the bowlers' minds would have strayed to the man who was not on the field. The talismanic Zaheer Khan was not merely wicket-taker but pack-leader, fire-starter, advisor, and aide. Against West Indies, Zaheer's second-in-commands, the capable and skilled Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar did more than adequately. Against a team one notch higher though, the demands have been doubly severe and the outcomes half as fruitful.
Ishant and Praveen's labours in England have been wince-inducing: Ishant has bowled 130 overs, Praveen 150 while Sreesanth has played only one Test so far, and bowled 68. Already the India's main frontline bowlers have bowled more overs than the two leading Indians did in the 2007 series in England. Then Zaheer bowled 136.2 to mark his career-breakthrough 18 wickets and Anil Kumble, second highest wicket-taker along with Anderson at 14, sent down 143.4. RP Singh who just strolled over to Edgbaston with a smile on his face was partner to Zaheer in 2007, bowling 92 overs and taking 12. It is not as if the team of 2007 was bubbling with optimism; they had come off a poor World Cup, were without Virender Sehwag, full stop, and no successor to Greg Chappell as coach. They weren't expected to win, none of their frontline batsmen scored a century in the three Tests, but at the end, India won the series 1-0. Their seam bowling attack however was a few notches higher in one critical element than the current group: pace.
Kumble, who is following the series from his home in Bangalore, can see how tired his former team-mates are by the sheer load but, for all his sympathy, says it is the top-class Test bowler's lot. "As a bowler, you'll have to get to a level where bowling 30 overs in a day is routine. You have to get into that mindset. You have to be prepared to have days like India had today, where nothing will go your way, where you won't get a wicket." What happens away from the field of play must then kick in and Kumble says the best solution is self-analysis. "Analyse what you did, what could you have done different, see if setting different fields helps. Think about changing something. If you don't do then you're just going through the motions."
It is the time, Kumble says when the young player, the new bowler of ambition and desire must push himself further, stretch his ambitions. "At this level, the talent is more or less the same. It is the desire that makes a difference. You have to tell yourself that out of the four bowlers, you want to become the No.1 that the captain turns to. How you want to go up the ranks is up to you." Don't look for one person to be your leader and yourself as the support cast, he often told his younger mates. Go and become that leader.
It is what Zaheer was able to do in 2007, after a lousy first day at Lord's. Since that series, he has taken 131 of his 273 wickets. Since the team's No.1 ranking, Zaheer has played in 11 out of India's 18 Tests before this England series and taken 53 wickets. He is missed now because in 2007, he pushed himself forward to become the No.1 man. What India's bowling is without today is a leader. Not the if-only man, the man who could have been, but someone in its ranks who, at the bottom of his heart, with all due respect, actually really wants to push Zaheer Khan off his perch.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo