Mostly tentative, Tendulkar still thrills
For England, it was a day of long, hard and fruitless toil; for India, a day of consolidation rather than conquest. By the end of it, however, there was no question where the momentum of the series was headed. Aside from a hard-earned victory over West Indies last June, and the obligatory dismissal of Zimbabwe in 2005, India have not won a Test series outside the subcontinent since their tour of England in 1986. Now, however, they are three good days away from the most improbable of series leads, and with just the Oval Test to come next week, England's failure to close down the Lord's Test grows more acute by the minute.
As Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid used what now amounts to almost 20,000 runs-worth of Test knowhow to inch their side ever further into the ascendancy, it almost felt that the clock had been turned back by half a decade. On this very ground in 2002, the seeds of India's last recovery on English soil were sown. Defeat in the Lord's Test was followed by consolidation at Trent Bridge, and then by glory at Headingley, where Dravid, Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly each made hundreds in what remains, arguably, the finest collective batting performance by an Indian team overseas.
Dravid won't match that effort (at least, not now in this innings) but for Tendulkar and Ganguly, who knows? Both remained in situ at the close, their competitive juices whetted by the scent of probable victory. For Tendulkar in particular this was - for the English fans who have not tracked his recent travails - an uncharacteristically dour performance. It was far removed from the twinkle-toed majesty of his earlier appearances on English soil, not least his glorious 177 on this very ground in 1996, when he was at the absolute peak of his powers.
"In my era, I think he's the best player I've ever had the pleasure of playing against," said Allan Donald, who was on the receiving end of two of Tendulkar's greatest performances - his 111 at Johannesburg in 1992-93, and his wonderous 169 at Cape Town (in partnership with Mohammad Azharuddin) five years later. "He's something special, very freakish, and I think that what he's done for the game and his country has been absolutely phenomenal. He's a credit to cricket and today he looked quite his old self out there."
That latter statement was something of a moot point. Tendulkar eventually looked his old self. He brought up his 11,000th Test run with a sumptuous cover-drive off Monty Panesar, and rifled Ryan Sidebottom in the same direction two balls later. Before that, however, he seemed listless at the crease - like the Mohammad Ali of the late-1970s, punch-drunk from years and years of fighting, and surviving through reputation and determination in equal measures.
Panesar, who so gleefully scalped him for 16 at Lord's, seemed almost apologetic when he served up a help-yourself leg-stump full-toss to get his hero off the mark first-ball, but after another single in the same over, Tendulkar managed just one more run from his next 28 deliveries, a torrid spell that included a clanging blow to the visor when James Anderson, the "bowling captain" as Donald later described him, dug one in short. In the first half-hour of his innings he changed his bat and gloves so many times that the 12th man eventually decided to wait by the edge of the pitch in case of a further change of mind.
|For Tendulkar in particular this was - for the English fans who have not tracked his recent travails - an uncharacteristically dour performance. It was far removed from the twinkle-toed majesty of his earlier appearances on English soil, not least his glorious 177 on this very ground in 1996, when he was at the absolute peak of his powers|
But eventually the confidence was coaxed out of his performance, and England's bowlers began to flag through their lack of rewards. "They showed a hell of a lot of courage and responsibility, and they were patient," said Donald. "I think the stage is set for these three youngsters - with all the senior bowlers injured around them - to grab this opportunity and show what they are about."
Tendulkar's efforts notwithstanding, it's been that sort of a series, one in which the young bucks have shown up their more experienced peers. None did so more effectively than Dinesh Karthik, whose splendidly forthright 77 came to an end through a loss of concentration straight after tea. The importance of his innings will doubtless be forgotten if Tendulkar and Anil Kumble secure the win that is there for India's taking, but even at this early stage of proceedings, Karthik was content to pass the praise directly to his idol.
"I'm so happy to be part of this team and I'm honoured that a person like Sachin even knows my name," said Karthik. "It's such a fantastic feeling for me. For me he's the greatest player I've ever seen, and I'm 100% sure he's going to beat the record. There's no doubt about that. It's just a matter of time."
It should be just a matter of time before India take the lead in this series as well. After India's depressing denouement at the World Cup, there may yet be a glorious finale in prospect for an extraordinary generation.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo